'Do unions still matter?' 5 answers I've offered to my father-in-law when he asks that question.

Labor unions have been on the decline for decades after reaching their high-water mark in 1955, when they represented nearly 35% of the workforce.

Some (like my father-in-law) say that because they bargain for fewer and fewer people, they should just go away. Or that “they had a purpose at one time, but not anymore."

But others say the decline of unions is one of the primary reasons that income inequality in the U.S. is so extreme.

For example, economist Robert Reich shows in his movie “Inequality for All" how the ascent of labor unions decreased the income gap and grew the middle class. You can see the correlation pretty clearly here:


Almost like a mirror image, eh? Hmmm... Graphic from the Economic Policy Institute, used with permission.

Here are a few things to think about.

Agitators gonna agitate: the early days of the UAW. GIF via "Do Labor Unions Still Matter?"

1. Labor unions began as a way for working people to get fair wages, working conditions, benefits, and more.

One of the original demands of labor unions was for the eight-hour workday. This was at a time when many people were working 10- to 16-hour days, every day of the week. It was eventually won, shop by union shop. And during the golden years (post-World War II through about the mid-1960s), it was the norm: Only one parent needed to work to support a family, and the working parent was home for dinner and the weekends.

That's fallen apart as unions have lost power. Now, some folks work three or more part-time jobs just to keep a roof over their head, and mandatory overtime — frequently with no days off for weeks at time — is common. It's time to turn that back around.

Let the dollahs roll!

2. Union jobs pay an average of at least $6,000 more per year than non-union.

That's almost $500 per month, or about two car payments. Whoa.

GIF via "Arrested Development."

3. Union jobs almost always have better benefits (health insurance, retirement savings, time off) than non-union jobs.

Hmmm ... is HAL about to open the pod bay doors? GIF via Prosthetic Knowledge's Tumblr.

4. The kinds of work we do have changed dramatically in the time since unions began.

This is one argument against labor unions — that factories and such are disappearing from our landscape, so those old unions should follow suit. However, many unions are expanding their membership to hospital workers, service industry folks, fashion models, restaurant workers, writers, adjunct professors, nursing assistants, and other professions. Some of these workplaces are clearly vulnerable to abuses, and they're ripe to be unionized. In all cases, working people deserve a fair share.

GIF by Reino Baptista/Wikimedia Commons.

5. A rising tide floats all boats higher.

What do I mean? In most sectors, union representation raises the wages and working condition standards for everybody. Without the union jobs setting the bar higher, economic compensation industry-wide goes down, not up.

That's likely why in some of the largely non-union South, auto companies that are not unionized still pay and treat people pretty well. That would not be the case if some of the other automakers in that part of the country were not unionized, with superior contracts.

Finally, unions offer people a little bit of power on the job — frequently something that, in a still-anemic economy, we're losing more and more of.

It doesn't have to be just about wages and benefits — many jobs come with those. But it's also about not being afraid to say something when management is behaving in ways that are negatively affecting lots of people, or when a supervisor has it in for an employee and is targeting them unfairly, or when work rules are changed arbitrarily and it makes everybody's job a nightmare.

The video below, by the channel TestTube News, will point you to some places to look further if you want to research a bit more, including some of the other side in this conversation.

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