By: Monica Plawecki, SMSBF Staff Writer
There are few things that are as core to Michigan’s identity as the Great Lakes, auto manufacturing, and our state’s uncanny mitten shape. Still, we’ll venture to add one more: labor unions. In Michigan, the birthplace of the U.S. labor movement, unions were for a long time a considerable force, particularly in the dominant auto industry. Yet even with its strong union legacy, our state has not been immune to the government’s decades-long capitulation to big business efforts to undermine labor power. Indeed, Michigan is among a handful of states that have passed legislation to weaken unions’ collective bargaining power.
In taking a closer look at the gradual decline of unions–which has in no small way contributed to the stagnation of real wages both in Michigan and throughout the country–it is evident that this trend is yet another adverse effect of the neoliberal-corporate agenda that dominates our economic processes and policymaking. Further, it’s becoming clearer that unless we reverse past actions to undermine labor power, the outlook for blue-collar workers and the strength of the middle class remains grim.
A Brief History of Unionization
At the height of their influence, unions brought increased prosperity and a boost in real wages for the middle and working class in the post-war era. After unions gained a footing in the American workforce in the early 20th century, attempts to unionize were given the official green light from the government in 1935 with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, or the Wagner Act, which guaranteed the right of workers to organize into unions and collectively bargain. (The New Yorker) As a result, the post-war period witnessed a surge in unionization, peaking at 35% in the 1950s, and higher wages negotiated by unions doubled real wages for workers. (The New York Times, The New Yorker)
Around the same time, unions began negotiating for employer-sponsored healthcare and retirement benefits. In 1950, the UAW negotiated the first employer-paid pension program, colloquially referred to as the “Treaty of Detroit,” wherein General Motors promised a 20 percent increase in workers’ standard of living. After over 100 days of striking, workers secured pay increases tied to productivity, pensions, extensive healthcare benefits, vacation time, and cost-of-living adjustments, though all “in return for cementing corporate control over most basic decisions governing the workplace.” (The New York Times, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment)
In the following decade or so, a major shift was underway with the rise of globalization, offshoring, and increased foreign competition in manufacturing. With manufacturing firms’ profits falling and national unemployment rates soaring, unions’ bargaining power began to be undercut. Meanwhile, manufacturing jobs were increasingly being replaced with service jobs, which tended not to unionize. (The New Yorker)
Legislation passed shortly after the war had also laid the groundwork for union-weakening efforts. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which amended the Wagner Act, constituted the first major state-sanctioned attempt to undercut the power of unions. The updated law paved the way for future right-to-work legislation to be adopted by states, ending the “closed shop” notion of unions, wherein employers were required to hire only union members and to dismiss workers who failed to become union members within a certain amount of time. In addition, the law allowed the government to order federal court injunctions to prevent worker strikes and block them from continuing. (Middle Tennessee State University – Taft-Hartley Act of 1947)
Further limiting union power, President Reagan decertified the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association (PATCO) in 1981, a union of federal air traffic control workers that were striking, leading to the arrest of dozens of striking union workers and the firing of more than eleven thousand workers. The executive action guaranteed that strikes would no longer be a sure-fire way for unions to renegotiate the conditions of their employment. What’s more, it set a new precedent for dismantling the labor movement, proving unions to be more vulnerable than previously thought. (NPR)
Unions & The Neoliberal Agenda At Work Today
Today, as a result of union-weakening legislation, globalization, and the rising popularity of right-to-work laws, the rate of union membership in the U.S. has declined to around 10.3%; meanwhile, twenty-seven states are now right-to-work states, allowing non-union employees to reap the benefits that come with union representation without paying union dues. (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) Along with the decline in unionization rates, we have also witnessed the stagnation of real wages for most workers, where productivity increases have greatly outpaced wage growth. This trend can actually be clearly attributed to the decline in unionization: as union workers enjoy a “union wage premium” relative to non-union workers, earning approximately $10,000 more annually, a decline in union membership rates has contributed to wage stagnation since less of the workforce is benefiting from union wages. (Economic Policy Institute, Detroit News)
Along with disappearing union wages, there appears to be a relationship between unionization and the concentration of wealth at the top of the income bracket; in the past century, periods of rising unionization rates also witnessed a shrinkage in the wealth of the top 1%. (The New Yorker) Likewise, as union membership rates have sharply declined since the two decades following WWII, the wealth of upper-income Americans has sharply increased. (Pew Research Center) At the same time, we are continuing to witness a breakdown of the workplace ideals and employer-guaranteed benefits that unions have historically stood for. Employer-provided pensions are increasingly being replaced by the significantly less costly 401k retirement package; employers are relying on 1099 independent contract work over retaining full-time employees; and workers, especially those in the service and retail industries, are scarcely guaranteed employer-provided health benefits.
Unfortunately, these trends reflect deliberate and intentional policy change over the years to prioritize profits and productivity over people and favor the “winners” of capitalism–namely, those at the top of the income distribution. In fact, organized labor poses a legitimate threat to “winners,” by “ensuring that at least some of [the nation’s] economic growth is shared by workers” while providing a medium through which workers can express their concerns, rally around their interests, and participate in a democratized workplace. (PSC CUNY – There’s a Reason the Right Hates Unions)
In response, the right has championed anti-union legislation and right-to-work laws as thinly-veiled attempts to offer more freedom and choice for workers; in reality, this legislation has allowed the government to continue to favor the interests of corporations over the rights of workers by undercutting the power of unions, which largely benefit the now-shrinking middle class. Under the neoliberal agenda, corporations and company executives are now afforded greater freedom to grow profits and protect their interests, keeping more money in their pockets at the expense of guaranteeing higher wages, better benefits, and improved standards of living for workers.
In truth, absent a resurgence in unionizing, and given that the federal government has failed to enact pro-union legislation for several decades, the outlook for workers in Michigan–and the rest of America–does not appear to be particularly optimistic. While we can observe the remnants of Michigan’s strong union past with the persistent efforts of the UAW, The Teamsters, and a number of public sector unions, union membership in our state has continued to fall since right-to-work legislation was passed during the legislative lame duck session in 2013, a continuation of the national decline of unions over the last half-century. (Michigan Capitol Confidential)
Even so, a trending decline in union membership may not necessarily be the last nail in the coffin for organized labor, and not all hope is lost for workers and the middle class. For starters, we can continue to fight for the benefits and improved standards of living long championed by unions through enacting meaningful policy change. Among such changes include further protecting workers’ rights, raising the minimum wage to a living wage, and rethinking our reliance on healthcare coverage tied to employment, ensuring that all Americans–not just the wealthiest–have a chance to partake in our nation’s prosperity.
As for the prospect of “saving” our unions, if we press for the reversal of right-to-work laws, keep alive the dialogue about the importance of worker’s rights, and clearly understand the insidious role that the neoliberal-corporate agenda has played in undermining labor power, we may have a fighting chance. Ultimately, we should look back at our state’s historical legacy of strong unions, as they are certain to hold the key to a more prosperous future.