Is the Worst Yet to Come for Unions?

John Russo

John Russo Research Fellow, Metropolitan Institute of Virginia Tech University

With the decline of good paying jobs in the private sector, public employment has been particularly important for working-class people. These state and local workers also provide important public services ranging from street cleaning, to home health to emergency services. Such employment opportunities have benefited African-American workers and their families especially.

This is true even as union membership declines overall. The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report showed that 10.7% of wage and salary workers belong to unions.  Union membership would be even worse if public sector union membership weren’t more than five times higher (at 34%) than the private-sector rate (6.4%). Like other working-class people, union members, including those in the public sector, have seen both the number of jobs and wages decrease dramatically. The situation is about to get worse as the result of Trump’s election, with the refiling of the Friedrichs case and state Right-to-Work (RTW) initiatives. Both Friedrichs and RTW undermine union membership, which reduces the power of union both politically and in the workplace by taking away the dues money that enables unions to advocate for and protect workers.

Union membership is a working-class issue because it helps workers improve their economic condition and helps to alleviate economic inequality. Even non-union workers benefit from unionization as a result of what economists call “wage pull.” What’s more, public-sector union strength helps prevent private-sector wages from falling further, even as public-sector unions are weakened by the decline in private-sector membership.

In January 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States heard the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which involved agency fee agreements that cover the costs of union representation without becoming a union member. The Friedrichs case is a direct attack on the right of public sector unions to exist. Without agency fees, many unions will collapse economically. They will have less money for organizing, representing, and lobbying for members.

With death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the court was split four-to–four, affirming a lower court ruling that denied the challenge to the agency fees. This is sure to have influenced Trump’s recent nomination of Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court as the  conservative justice is  likely to be a deciding vote when Friedrich’s is refiled. Already, conservative groups like the RTW Foundation and US Chamber of Commerce are supporting the resurrection of the Friedrichs case, and the New York Times Editorial Board warns that Gorsuch “spells big trouble for public sector labor unions.”

Currently, there are 27 RTW states, including a number that have strong union traditions. Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Missouri, and Ohio all have RTW proposals in the works. Last week in the US House of Representatives, two Republican legislators introduced national RTW legislation.

The effects of RTW laws, especially in combination with attacks on public-sector bargaining, have been devastating. Since Wisconsin banned most public sector bargaining (ACT 10) and passed RTW legislation, union membership has dropped in both private and public sectors from well above the national average to now well below. Nationally, the Service Employees International Union has announced a 30% budget cut over the next year that will include staff layoffs.

Election results show that 24 of the 26 states that, as of November, had RTW policies voted for Donald Trump, along with six non-RTW states — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, Alaska, Montana, and Kentucky, which has since passed its own RTW legislation.  Conservative organizations like the Allegheny Institute have called the Trump election a “sign that voters have become weary of public sector unions driving government costs and taxes higher than they need to be.” They are urging more state legislatures to pass RTW legislation focused on the public sector.

For many years, public sector wages and benefits were lower than in the private sector. But with deindustrialization, economic restructuring, automation, and the establishment of public-sector collective bargaining, they have finally caught up. In some cases, government jobs are now worth more than private sector jobs, largely because good benefits compensate for lower wages. A 2015 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that while public workers with higher education earn less than similar private-sector workers, they receive better health benefits and pensions. But this applies only in states that don’t have RTW laws, as the EPI concludes:

Only public employees in states with full collective bargaining make as much as their private-sector peers. In partial collective bargaining states, right-to-work states, and states that prohibit collective bargaining, public employees earn lower wages and compensation than comparable private sector employees, and this low compensation may impede state and local governments from recruiting and retaining highly skilled employees for their many professional and public safety occupations.

No wonder, so many private sector employers have supported RTW legislation.

Beyond improving workers’ financial situations, unions also protect workers by articulating and enforcing labor standards involving wages,  hours, overtime, and subcontracting, that are increasingly in short supply. This is especially important in low wage working-class jobs in the growing service economy. The National Employment Law Project found that the greatest loss in real wages since the end of the Great Recession has been in low-wage occupations such as in food preparation, janitors and cleaners, personal care aides, home health aides, and maids and housekeeping cleaners. It is in these occupations and sectors where the Bureau of Labor Statistics says the greatest job growth will be through 2022. Perhaps this is most important reason to fight both state and national RTW legislation.

Put differently, we should fight against cases like Friedrichs and RTW legislation on a moral basis. In Kentucky, the Catholic Bishop of Lexington made a strong moral argument against RTW legislation and support for labor unions. Bishop John Stowe said organized labor supports the common good, arguing that “unions need the support of the workers they represent. The falsely named ‘right to work’ legislation proposed does not in fact create new rights to work, but rather strives to limit the effectiveness and power of the unions.” Just like the recent wave of marches and growing protests that are being framed in moral terms, fighting RTW legislation is a moral imperative.


Reposted from Working-Class Perspectives.

John Russo is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Metropolitan Institute of Virginia Tech University, in Arlington.  Until December, 2012, he was Director of the Labor Studies Program and Co-Director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University.

Posted In: Allied Approaches, From Center for Working-Class Studies

Union Matters

The Big Drip

From the USW

From tumbledown bridges to decrepit roads and failing water systems, crumbling infrastructure undermines America’s safety and prosperity. In coming weeks, Union Matters will delve into this neglect and the urgent need for a rebuilding campaign that creates jobs, fuels economic growth and revitalizes communities. 

A rash of water main breaks in West Berkeley, Calif., and neighboring cities last month flooded streets and left at least 300 residents without water. Routine pressure adjustments in response to water demand likely caused more than a dozen pipes, some made of clay and more than 100 years old, to rupture.

West Berkeley’s brittle mains are not unique. Decades of neglect left aging pipes susceptible to breaks in communities across the U.S., wasting two trillion gallons of treated water each year as these systems near collapse.

Comprehensive upgrades to the nation’s crumbling water systems would stanch the flow and ensure all Americans have reliable access to clean water.

Nationwide, water main breaks increased 27 percent between 2012 and 2018, according to a Utah State University study.  

These breaks not only lead to service disruptions  but also flood out roads, topple trees and cause illness when drinking water becomes contaminated with bacteria.

The American Water Works Association estimated it will cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years to upgrade and expand water infrastructure.

Some local water utilities raised their rates to pay for system improvements, but that just hurts poor consumers who can’t pay the higher bills.

And while Congress allocates money for loans that utilities can use to fix portions of their deteriorating systems, that’s merely a drop in the bucket—a fraction of what agencies need for lasting improvements.

America can no longer afford a piecemeal approach to a systemic nationwide crisis. A major, sustained federal commitment to fixing aging pipes and treatment plants would create millions of construction-related jobs while ensuring all Americans have safe, affordable drinking water.

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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work