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Why the State of New York’s Unions Should Concern Us All

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amytraub4Talk to a working New Yorker, and the odds are one in four that she belongs to a union. That’s a rate of union membership more than twice as high as the country as a whole, note CUNY professor Ruth Milkman and graduate student Laura Braslow in their new study, “The State of the Unions: A Profile of 2009-2010 Union Membership in New York City, New York State, and the USA.” Their research provides a rich analysis of data on union demographics and industry composition in the city, state, and country, and suggests some hidden strengths and challenges of New York’s economy.

New York City is home to 800,000 union members, with particular union density in the public sector and the health care and social assistance industries. By and large, these union jobs continue to be good jobs: the CUNY analysis finds that union members in New York City earn more than non-union workers, while national statistics suggest that they are also more likely to earn middle-class health and retirement benefits.

Unionized positions represent a particularly important source of good jobs for people of color: African-American New Yorkers (37% unionized) and city residents born in Puerto Rico (41% unionized) are among the most likely to be union members. National data also indicate that people of color see especially strong benefits from collective bargaining, suggesting how important unions are to sustaining New York City’s African American and Latino middle class. Women also get a big boost in job quality as a result of union membership – it turns out that working women in New York are as likely to be union members as men.

What the statistics don’t capture is the way that high union density also improves job standards for workers are not union members, as when the city’s large non-union hotels pay wages far above the national standard because New York’s hotel union has effectively set a higher industry-wide rate. New York’s unions have also helped to advance a political agenda that benefits workers far outside their membership: consider the pivotal role New York unions played in the successful fight to increase the state’s minimum wage in 2004, or the efforts unions are making today to guarantee paid sick time to all working people in New York City.

In effect, New York’s relatively high rate of unionization mitigates the city’s extreme inequality, carving out a bastion of middle-class jobs in an economy increasingly divided between Wall Street’s resurgent masters of the universe and everyone else. Yet this mitigating power has sharp limitations: the CUNY analysis illustrates how retail sales, the restaurant industry, and other service jobs in the city remain largely non-union. As a result, these sectors suffer not only low wages and few benefits, but widespread cases of wage theft and other violations of basic employment standards. Lousy jobs proliferate where unions are absent.

“Organized labor has more than held its own in New York relative to the nation,” the CUNY study concludes, “[but] in absolute terms unions have lost considerable ground in both the City and the State over the past few decades, especially in the private sector… In labor’s glory days, a strongly unionized private sector helped foster a strongly social-democratic political culture in New York City. The precipitous drop in private-sector density is among the factors that have threatened to undermine that political culture in recent years.” If New York’s unions continue to decline, New York’s middle class may continue to disappear with it.

This article was originally published on DMI Blog.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers.


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Where Have All the Labor Writers Gone?

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Consider the fate of the labor reporter. A long vanishing breed, there are only a few of them left in the country.

Businesses and their mouthpieces disparage them for daring to question their facts, their motives and for humanizing the stories that Corporate America wishes would remain distant and bloodless so nobody would pay attention to them.

Union supporters often question their support for organized labor. And they frequently accuse labor reporters of hyping their coverage in order to draw attention to their articles while failing to convey the deeper, more significant issues that confront unions.

Then there is the small collection of union crooks, and bullies who despise labor reporters because they dare to look under their unions’ hoods and to expose wrong-doing.

And yet the surviving labor reporters go on. They persist even though many of them have been scattered to the far corners of news operations by editors convinced that their stories no longer matter, and despite the crushing presence of business news that treats workers and unions as if they were invisible and unconnected to what goes on.

New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse is one of these survivors. He was recently snarled in a dispute with some union officials that says something about the job’s many thankless hassles.

In November, he wrote an article detailing complaints of current and former members of Unite Here, the hotel and restaurant workers’ union, with what they described as a longstanding practice known as pink-sheeting.

Citing interviews with “more than a dozen organizers,” Greenhouse detailed workers’ allegations that they were pressured to detail personal issues that they said were later used against them as a way to control or manipulate them.

John W. Wilhelm, Unite Here’s president, who was quoted as saying that he condemned such tactics, also described its presence within in the union as “rare.” But he also told Greenhouse that he was “cracking down on what pink sheeting existed.”

Not long after the article appeared, the Union of Unite Here Staff (UUHS) issued a public letter, heaping a mountain of complaints onto Greenhouse’s shoulders. The group accused the story of being founded on “trumped claims” from disgruntled former staffers, and of failing to link the complaints to the larger dispute that not long ago drove the former hotel workers and garment workers unions to abruptly break up their union marriage.

What’s Greenhouse’s take on these gripes?

Citing Wilhelm’s own admission that such abuses have existed and accounts from others familiar with them, he doesn’t think the complaints are made up.

Nor does he think he failed to point out the battling between the unions.

Indeed, the story did talk about the break-up and cited as well Wilhelm’s supporters who said that the complaints were coming from his union’s foes.

Could he have fleshed out more in detail the roots of pink-sheeting within organized labor? Possibly, I think. Could he have moved higher in the story the details about the unions’ toxic break-up? Possibly.

But questioning his “journalistic integrity,” doesn’t fit well.

Not when you consider reporting over the years about union victories ignored by most of the mainstream media, otherwise untold stories about companies’ abusive practices that unions stood up against, and stories about unions and their leaders that reached more than some husbands and young children.

It’s a pain delivering bad news about unions when they are so down on their luck, but  that’s one of the burdens of being a fair and honest labor reporter.

It’s also a responsibility.

I know, because I spent quite a long time doing the job, and can tell you all about the rewards and headaches, among them angry words hurled at you by union officials who say you are not on their side.

But truly you are not on their side.

You are there to tell the truth, to tell the human story, and to make sure nobody forgets that workers and unions count. And that’s a fact nobody should deny.

This article originally appeared in Working In These Times on December 12, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Stephen Franklin was the Chicago Tribune‘s labor and workplace reporter until August 2008.


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