What Are Unions and Why Are They Under Attack?

With Republicans gaining control of all three branches of the federal government, unions are under increasing attack. For students, this raises some pertinent questions: What are unions? Why are they important? And how will the attack on unions affect working people in our country?  


To the Teacher

For the past several decades, union membership in the United States has been on a steady decline, and the prominence of unions in American life has dwindled. With Donald Trump's election and Republicans gaining control of all three branches of the federal government, unions are likely to face even greater challenges.

For students, this raises some pertinent questions: What are unions? Why are they important? And how will the attack on unions affect working people in our country?

This lesson consists of two readings aimed at having students think critically about unions and their prospects in the coming years. The first lesson provides general background on unions. The second reading takes a closer look at Trump's attacks on organized labor.




Ask students if they have family or friends who are union members or have been union members. If so, what have they heard about what the union means to that family member or friend? What does the union do? 

If students don't know anyone who is in a union, ask students to share what they have heard about unions, either today or in history.



Reading 1:
What are Unions and What Do They Do?

You may sometimes hear about unions in the news, or maybe you know someone who is in a union. But what exactly is a union and what purpose does it serve?

Acting alone, it is often very difficult for an individual worker to demand higher wages, to secure better benefits, or to resolve disputes between employees and an employer. One person has very little leverage against a large company. However, when workers decide to join together in an organization that represents their interests in the workplace, their power to make these demands increases significantly. Acting collectively, employees in a workplace can slow down the functioning of a business or even go on strike, and this gives them a source of leverage. In short, a union is simply a body that represents workers and collectively bargains or mobilizes on their behalf.  In general, the wages and benefits workers are able to win help raise the standard for wages and benefits for all workers.

Unions are also a vehicle that working people can use to fight for broader rights, not just those of the union's members. Today, unions are mobilizing their members and the public in support of immigrant workers' rights, for a higher minimum wage for everyone, for healthcare, and for other reforms to advance social and economic justice. Historically, unions were critical in winning us the 8-hour day, and, famously, the weekend.

In 1935, after a huge surge of organizing, workers and their unions got Congress to pass legislation giving workers the right to join a union if they so choose. The right to form a union is also enshrined in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

However, opponents of unions argue that workplaces run more efficiently without union interference. Furthermore, they argue that while unions collect dues from their members, these organizations cannot guarantee better conditions. They view dues as a burden workers shouldn't have to bear. (The amount workers pay in dues varies. In the United Auto Workers, dues are 1% to 1.5% of gross wages, representing about two hours of a worker's pay per month.)

Some opponents also argue that by forcing employers to pay higher wages, unions limit the number of jobs available to others. Writes Paul Roderick Gregory, a research fellow at the right-wing Hoover Institution, in Forbes magazine:

Unions, such as the UAW [United Auto Workers], bring a small number of privileged workers into the middle class, while others with the same qualifications sit on the outside looking in. Their high pay limits the number of "middle class" jobs. Others with the same qualifications have to scratch their way into the middle class. They have not won the "union lottery ticket."

Considering that unions are usually able to negotiate better salaries, benefits, and working conditions for the workers they represent, it should not come as a surprise that businesses seeking to cut costs and maximize profits would oppose unions. Employers typically fight tooth and nail to keep workers from successfully organizing. If workers do win a majority of votes in a union election, very often they encounter intense resistance in trying to win a first contract (an agreement with the employer that usually runs several years).

So do unions really make a difference? The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics looked at the numbers in a 2013 report. They found that union members not only earn significantly more than nonunion workers, they have better benefits.

  • Union workers' are higher: In 2011, they averaged $23.02 per hour compared with $19.51 per hour for nonunion workers.
  • Union workers have much better benefits (such as health insurance) than nonunion workers, on average. In 2011, the average total value of the benefits that union workers received was $14.67 per worker per hour worked. But non-union workers got only $7.56 per worker per hour in benefits. According to the report: "While the difference between union and nonunion wages has remained fairly consistent over time, the difference between union and nonunion benefit costs appears to have widened" between 2001 and 2011.
  • Union workers generally have more time off. This includes family leave to take care of a newborn or an ailing family member. Union workers have 20% more vacation days than non-union workers, on average.
  • Private sector workers who were in unions were much more likely to have a retirement plan than nonunion workers (90% vs. 61%)

The influence of unions does not end in the workplace. Because they represent large numbers of people who can be organized to vote as blocs, unions are able to exert significant influence within electoral politics. As policy analyst Sean McElwee wrote in an April 15, 2015 article for Al Jazeera America, unions represent one of the few counterweights to the influence of wealthy donors in our political system. McElwee wrote:

Unions not only give their members a voice at work but also can have much broader political effects. By mobilizing voters and contributing to campaigns, organized labor is in effect the only lobbying group operating in the interest of ordinary Americans.

In a 1998 study, political scientists Benjamin Radcliff and Martin Saiz found that "the relative strength of the labor movement across the American states is one of the principal determinants of policy liberalism." They found that the rate of unionization has a dramatic effects on spending for Aid to Families With Dependent Children and education as well as on tax progressivity and that these effects are stronger than Democratic governors and Democratic legislatures. As Radcliff told me, "strong labor unions are able to influence public policy, so as to create programs ... that benefit everyone in society, not merely organized workers."

One way unions reduced inequality was by boosting voter turnout, which gave them political leverage. It's rarely noted, but the campaign for Seattle's $15 minimum hourly wage could not have succeeded without a massive, union-led voter registration drive.

Photo above: Unions helped sponsor a march for immigrant and workers' rights in Minneapolis in April 2016. By Fibonacci Blue.


For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, what is a union?
  3. What are some of the arguments raised by opponents of unions?
  4. According to the reading, what are some of the potential benefits of joining a union?
  5. According to the reading, what value might unions have for society in general?
  6. What do you think? Do you believe that joining a union is worthwhile?



Reading 2:
President Trump: The Last Straw For Unions in America?

For the past several decades, union membership in the United States has been on a steady decline, and the prominence of unions in American life has substantially decreased. With Donald Trump's election and Republicans gaining control of all three branches of the federal government, unions could now face an even greater challenge.

In the early 1950s, one out of three American workers belonged to unions. Today, only about 11% of American workers are in unions. Some of this decline has been the result of a concerted effort by conservative state legislatures to enact "right to work" laws.

If your state has a "right to work" law, it means that individual workers who are in a workplace that is represented by a union (because a majority of people in that workplace voted for one), can opt not to pay union dues. This means that the union bargains with the employer and protects workers' contract rights, but is unable to collect dues from all the members it represents.

As journalist Harold Meyerson wrote in a January 18, 2016 article for The American Prospect:

Imagine America without unions. This shouldn't be hard. In much of America unions have already disappeared. In the rest of America they're battling for their lives...

Following the 2010 elections, a number of newly elected Republican governors and legislatures in the industrial Midwest, long a union stronghold, moved to reduce labor's numbers to the trace-element levels that exist in the South. A cold political logic spurred their attacks: Labor was the chief source of funding and volunteers for their Democratic opponents, and working-class whites, who still constitute a sizable share of the electorate in their states, were far more likely to vote Democratic if they belonged to a union. The fiscal crisis of the states provided the pretext for Republicans to try to take out their foremost adversaries, public-employee unions.

In Indiana, Governor Mitch Daniels signed a "right to work" law giving nonunion members who enjoyed the benefits of a union contract the right to withhold dues to the union, making Indiana the first Midwestern state to pass such legislation. In Ohio, Governor John Kasich signed a bill repealing collective-bargaining rights for all public employees, but voters overturned that law at the polls. In Wisconsin, which had been the first state to extend those rights to public-sector workers, Governor Scott Walker also repealed those rights, but more selectively than Kasich: He kept them for police and firefighters. When outraged unionists and their allies mounted a recall campaign against him, Walker beat them back handily. In the nation's capital, Republican senators and congressmen refused to confirm President Barack Obama's appointees to the National Labor Relations Board, which adjudicates labor-management relations in the private sector.

Many Trump voters say, with good reason, that they are angry and worried about the loss of good-paying jobs in America. Trump and other conservatives tend to blame immigrants, taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and government regulations for stagnant wages.

But there is ample evidence that the decline in union power is one of the main reasons that many working class jobs do not pay as well as they once did. Ironically, if the Trump administration pursues policies that weaken unions, it could serve to further depress the pay and worsen the working conditions of many people who voted for the president.

In his book The End of American Labor Unions, Raymond Hogler, a professor of labor and employment relations, cites evidence that right-to-work laws are correlated with lower rates of union membership, lower per capita incomes, and less progressive taxes. In short, says Hogler, right to work laws lead to "further entrenching the power of corporations, not the economic emancipation of American wage earners."

In a December 3, 2016, article for Newsweek, Hogler discussed several ways that the Trump administration could harm both unions and the working people who benefit from them. 

Despite the enthusiasm of his working-class supporters, Trump's economic policies would bring them a raw deal, not a New Deal. Three key areas will play a crucial role in union diminution and workers' bargaining power during Trump's administration, with further declines in real hourly earnings.

The first is regulatory. On his inauguration, Trump has the opportunity to appoint two new members to the National Labor Relations Board now controlled by Obama appointees with administrative discretion to implement pro-labor decisions... Trump's future replacements undoubtedly will promote a business-friendly agenda, and the board's shift in emphasis will be immediately apparent.

The second is the Supreme Court. If Trump fills the vacant seat with someone in the mold of the late Antonin Scalia, the new court will likely uphold what in my view is the rickety constitutional theory of union dues put forth by Samuel Alito in Knox v. SEIU. Alito's rule holds that public sector union members have a constitutional right to decline dues payments unless they consent to do so...

The third and most lethal blow against unions, along with board and court hostility, is the expansion of right-to-work laws as a by-product of Trump's victory....

In his effort to brand himself as a defender of the working class, Donald Trump has attempted to form ties with some segments of organized labor. But as union activist Dan La Botz argued in a February 16, 2017, article for the left-wing publication Jacobin, the president is likely deploying a divide-and-conquer strategy, which many unions are rejecting:

President Donald Trump has not only a pro-business agenda, but a shrewd labor one, too. He has put forward a program to win over some highly skilled, largely white workers while simultaneously attacking the unions that represent many more black, Latino, and women workers. It is a strategy intended to solidify his base while dividing and weakening the labor movement...

[While] the building trades and Teamsters embraced Trump's project, many other unions have gone into opposition mode, though to varying degrees.

La Botz goes on to describe some of the union resistance against Trump:

  • The American Federation of Teachers mobilized protests by members in more than 200 cities on the day before the inauguration.
  • The National Education Association (the nation's largest union, with 2.7 million members)  called on its members to walk out of schools on inauguration day
  • Members of Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in Oakland, California, a union with a long radical history and a membership that is half Black, stopped working on Inauguration Day, refusing to load or unload cargo ships in one of the nation's busiest ports.
  • The New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which has many Muslim immigrant members, went on strike at JFK airport to protest Trump's immigration ban. When Uber failed to honor the taxi drivers' strike, as many as 200,000 Uber uses deleted the Uber app and called on Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to resign from Trump's business advisory board. Kalanick quickly acceded.


For Discussion

  • How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  • According to the reading how might the Trump administration be harmful for organized labor?
  • During the election, many Trump voters expressed concern about the loss of well-paying jobs for American workers. How are the Trump administration's attacks on unions likely to affect these workers?
  • The Trump administration has tried to curry favor with a small number of unions while attacking most others. How have unions responded?
  • What do you think is the best way for people dissatisfied with low-paying jobs to improve wages and working conditions?
  • Do you think unions should play a role in broader efforts to make our society more just? If not, why not? If so, how?



Homework Assignment

Invite students to interview any current or former union members they know about what their union does and what difference it makes (positive or negative) for them, their co-workers, or society. In the next class, ask students to share and discuss what they've learned.