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This Labor Day, Thank Unions For Boosting Wages

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Bryce CovertLabor Day is now seen as the official end of summer and a day off (at least for those who actually get paid holiday leave) to grill or go to the beach one last time. But when it was originally conceived as a federal holiday, it was as a concession to the labor movement after bloody union unrest that left 30 striking workers dead. It was meant as a day to celebrate the efforts and sacrifices of unionized workers.

A shrinking share of Americans are union members today. But the benefits brought about by the union movement are still just as strong, particularly when it comes to workers’ pay.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Bryan R. Smith
CREDIT: AP Photo/Bryan R. Smith

Being in a union is particularly helpful for marginalized groups that tend to be paid less than white men. A new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that black union workers earn wages that are, on average, 16.4 percent higher than black workers who aren’t in a union. The same is true for women: a report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that women in a union earn 30.9 percent more than women who aren’t unionized.

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos

Unionization also yields salary benefits for white men, who get a 20.1 percent boost for being in a union. But the wage-boosting power of unions has been hampered as the share of workers who belong to one has declined. In 1983, the earliest year the Bureau of Labor Statistics has data for, 20.1 percent of the workforce belonged to a union. Today that share has been cut nearly in half, down to 11.1 percent.

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos

That’s hurt everyone’s wages, not just unionized workers. The wage-boosting power of unions usually spills out into other workplaces because they set standards that everyone ends up adopting. A new report from the Economic Policy Institute found that for men working in the private sector who aren’t in a union, their weekly wages would be about 5 percent higher if union membership had stayed at the same rate as it was in 1979. That would mean an extra $2,704 per year on average. Non-union women would also benefit, but the impact would be smaller- a 2 to 3 percent increase in wages- because women have historically been a much smaller share of union workers.1-7CCL6l2MCZiQP3S-rXrB4Q

The drop in union membership, and the subsequent erosion of the wage benefits for all workers, has played a role in widening wage inequality, holding down pay at the bottom of the scale but less so at the top. In fact, other researchers have found a strong correlation between the fall of union power and the rise of income inequality.

This article was originally posted at Thinkprogress.org on September 5, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Bryce Covert  is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New York Daily News, New York Magazine, Slate, The New Republic, and others. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and other outlets.

 

 


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Is Perelman Jewish Day School the Hobby Lobby of Union-Busting?

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Bruce VailA small group of teachers in Philadelphia are finding their union rights under attack on questionable religious grounds, much the same way that women across America found their right to healthcare assaulted this week in the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby case.

Some 55 teachers at the Perelman Jewish Day School, which has two K-5 campuses in the Philadelphia suburbs with some 300 total students, were stunned March 24 to be notified that the school’s board had decided to cease recognizing their union. The teachers were told that the current union contract will be allowed to expire and they will be required to negotiate individual one-year contracts with school administrators. Normally, revoking union recognition would be considered a blatant violation of collective bargaining law. But board vice president Aaron Freiwald says the action is justified by a Supreme Court decision. The case he’s likely referring to is the obscure 1979 NLRB v. Catholic Bishops of Chicago, in which the Supreme Court found that religious schools are exempt from certain provisions of the National Labor Relations Act.

The teachers, some of whom are observant Jews themselves, are not going to meekly allow their union to be dissolved, says Barbara Goodman, the communications director for the AFT Pennsylvania, the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and the union with which the Perelman Jewish Day School Faculty Association Local 3578 is affiliated.

Members held an emergency meeting March 27, Goodman says, and unanimously passed a resolution to fight for their union. It read:

We categorically reject the terms and conditions in the materials that were handed to us, and we authorize all of our local, state and national officers to pursue all legal means to have this action reversed and to return to the bargaining table, where we can negotiate in good faith a contract that is good for the students and the teachers.

Equally offended by the board action is Jesse Bacon, whose daughter is a student at the exclusive private school, where tuitioncan be as high as $20,000 a year. Bacon tells In These Times that he’s firmly on the side of the teachers and regards any claim to religious legitimacy for the board’s high-handed action as bogus and offensive. “This is just rank hypocrisy. … It makes my blood boil,” he says.

Hypocritical or not, the teachers just may have a real legal fight on their hands, says Dan Kovalik, who is on the legal staff at the Pittsburgh headquarters of the United Steelworkers (USW). The little-known Catholic Bishops decision does allow religious schools to claim exemption from the NLRA, he says, although it is not clear that it would apply to the Perelman school. The USW is fighting a Catholic Bishops case right now, he adds, as the union attempts to organize the part-time faculty at the Duquesne University, a Catholic school in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. And there are a number of other cases where religious schools have successfully used the Catholic Bishops defense to fend of unionization of the faculty, he says. Indeed, labor lawyers are closely watching a National Labor Relations Board decision right now in a case involving Pacific Lutheran University, which may clarify the law.

The claim of religious exemption doesn’t mean much to the AFT’S Goodman. “Perelman School has been unionized for 38 years. I’m Jewish myself and I can tell you for sure that nothing about Judaism has changed in the last week to justify” attacking the teachers union, she says.

Nor does it hold much water with Bacon. He tells In These Times that his great-grandmother became a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union while a seamstress in New York City a century ago. There is a proud tradition in his family of progressive Jewish unionism —some were lifetime members of the socialist-leaning organization Workman’s Circle—and any attempt to justify union-busting with Judaism is offensive, he says. He also notes that the board at the Perelman school chose to move against the union on the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the tragedy that helped catalyze the unionization of Jewish workers in New York’s garment district.

Pennsylvania AFT President Ted Kirsch said the full resources of the union are being marshaled to defend the teachers. “You wouldn’t believe the calls I’ve gotten from around the country. This is just so against the Jewish tradition that people can’t believe Perelman is trying to get away this this,” he says.

Freiwald, a Philadelphia lawyer, turned down requests from In These Times for a phone interview but invited queries by email. He declined to answer most of the e-mailed questions, but did however identify himself as the chairman of a special board task force that recommended the vote against the union and stated that the vote was unanimous. He provided a press release and aprepared FAQ sheet [PDF] as the school’s only public comment.

This matter exploded the same week that the Supreme Court heard arguments in the Hobby Lobby case, in which an employer argued that his religious convictions against birth control trumped the healthcare rights of his workers. Bacon sees a clear parallel between the two: “That seems like phony religion to me. So does this.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on March 28, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.


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IBEW Father and Daughter’s Long Journey to Sochi Short Track

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Image: Mike HallSpringfield, Mo., Electrical Workers (IBEWLocal 453 member Craig Scott is in Sochi, Russia, this week watching his daughter Emily compete for Olympic gold in several short track speed skating events.  But it wasn’t an easy journey for father or daughter

Emily, 25, was a world champion inline skater before taking up short track speed skating about five years ago. But with the U.S. Speedskating cutting her funding last year, a part-time job not bringing in enough to pay the bills or give her time to train and a crowdfunding effort falling short, Emily was on the verge of giving up her dream.

But a USA Today profile of her struggles sparked nearly $50,000 in donations and allowed her to quit her job and focus on training and making the Olympic team.

Now with Emily whose events run through this week, and with Scott in Sochi to cheer her on, he says:

It’s taken a little while to sink in. It’s 20 years of hard work, and finally everything has sort of come together.

Read more coverage from the News-Leader here and here, and check the paper’s website for updates.

See Six Fun Facts About Short Track Skater Emily Scott from NBCOlympics.com and more from U.S. Speedskating.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on February 17, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log.  He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.


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Yes, 87,500 Macy’s Workers Won’t Get Thanksgiving Holiday, But That’s Not Their Biggest Concern

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Bruce VailDepartment store chain Macy’s, known for its lavish Thanksgiving Day parade, is taking heat for canceling the holiday for many of its 175,000 employees. On Oct. 13, the Chicago Sun-Times reported the news that Macy plans to break with its 155-year practice of closing its stores on Thanksgiving Day.

Macy’s spokesperson Holly Thomas confirmed to Working In These Times that about 750 of the company’s 850 stores nationwide will be opened at 8 pm, requiring some 87,500 workers to give up a part of their traditional family holiday. But she stressed that no employees would be required to report to work against their will and that a sufficient number of volunteers had already been recruited. Further, those workers will all receive time-and-a-half holiday pay for their full shifts, Thomas says.

And surprisingly, the largest union local representing Macy’s workers had a similar take. Gail Rogers, Secretary-Treasurer of Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union Local 1-S, which has over 3,500 members in New York City and nearby Westchester County, says she sees no reason to criticize Macy’s as long as the company honors its union contracts. “We received notice a couple of months ago, and Macy’s will be honoring our contract. Nobody is going to be forced to work if they prefer to celebrate the holiday, and the volunteers will all be getting time-and-a-half. Plenty of our members are willing… so there aren’t a lot of complaints,” she says.

So is this a tempest in a teapot? Rogers says that there is still one concern: While union workers are protected, non-union workers have no one to ensure Macy’s keeps its word.

“My concern would be for the non-union workers” at Macy’s and its subsidiary Bloomingdales, Rogers says. “Without a good union contract, it’s easy to see how the voluntary nature of the work, and the premium pay, might fall by the wayside as time goes by.”

Only about 10 percent of Macy’s workers are unionized, according to the company’s most recentSecurities & Exchange Commission disclosure statement, with pockets of union strength in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and the greater Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Aside from RWDSU, workers are unionized through the United Food & Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), Teamsters, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Unite Here.

Both RWDSU and UFCW have organizing efforts underway to increase union membership at Macy’s stores, but the company is offering stiff resistance.

For example, Seattle-based UFCW Local 21 is currently trying to organize a Macy’s store in Silverado, Wash., in hopes of adding to the four stores it already represents in the area. A June 28 report in the Kitsap Sun indicated the union had filed unfair labor practice charges against the store in the bitter dispute. UFCW Local 21 Communications Director Tom Geiger did not respond to several requests for comment from Working In These Times.

A similar situation in the San Francisco Bay area culminated in July 2011 with a union election victory by UFCW Local 5 at a Macy’s store in Pleasanton, Calif. In a press statement at the time, Local 5 spokesperson Mike Henneberry said the union had overcome “aggressive employer resistance” to win the National Labor Relations Board-supervised election. The victory increased the number of Macy’s stores under Local 5 contract from two to three. Like Geiger, Henneberrry did not respond to requests for comment this week from Working In These Times.

Yet another organizing effort by Dedham, Mass.-based UFCW Local 1445 is even receiving special attention by federal regulators. Local 1445 is currently seeking a union election among a small group of cosmetics and perfume salespersons at the Macy’s store in Saugus, Mass., but the company is fighting the election as an improper interpretation of federal labor law. The case is now before the NLRB, but the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has dubbed the cosmetics and perfume sales staff an improper “micro-union” and is encouraging federal lawmakers to support a new labor law to restrict such organizing efforts. Local 1445 President Rick Charette did not respond to a request for comment.

RWDSU’s Rogers tells Working In These Times that efforts to expand the jurisdiction of Local 1-S have been met with similar determined resistance over the years. The organizing efforts contributed to an especially difficult contract negotiation in 2011. That was the same year that Local 1-S has a successful campaign to organize new Macy’s workers in the Elmhurst neighborhood in city’s borough of Queens.

For the unions then, the end of the Thanksgiving holiday at Macy’s is not so much an occason for outrage as the latest step in a long national trend that reinforces the need for union representation. As Macy’s noted in its own defense, Thanksgiving openings are increasingly common among large retailers anxious to begin the Christmas shopping season. Wal-Mart, for example opened its doors at 10pm on Thanksgiving in 2011, and pushed the time back to 8pm in 2012. Employers asking for more from workers is a tale as old as business; and historically, it’s been the job of unions to make sure workers’ rights aren’t trampled.

One non-union Macy’s employee, Lorraine Riley-James of Chicago, is peeved by the Thanksgiving openings. “It’s just unfair. It’s selfish. I hate it,” she says. An activist in the Chicago-area Fight for 15 campaign for higher wages in the retail and fast food industries, Riley-James regards the Macy’s decision as a unilateral move to take away one of the few paid holidays enjoyed by retail workers. “They really took it away from us last year when they started the midnight openings [on Black Friday]. … You have to come in earlier to get ready, [so it] ruins the holiday.”

Riley-Jones says she plans to contInue her activism for higher wages and better benefits for workers at Macy’s and elsewhere.

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on October 18, 2o13.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.


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How “Right to Work Shirk” Laws Kill Jobs – and Hurt All of Us

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Michigan’s recent battle makes this a good time to explain the union movement’s important role in our economy’s overall health. We’re about to explain why today’s war on unions is bad for all of us, no matter what we do for a living, and we’ll do it in four steps.

But first a word about language: “Right to work” is a misnomer for laws which let employees enjoy the benefits of union membership – at least for a little while, until they’re stripped away – without joining or contributing.

So we’ll call them “right to shirk” laws instead. And we’ll call the people who back these laws Shirkers.

And while we’re at it, let’s stop calling the states that have adopted this legislation “right to work.” They don’t give people any new rights. They take rights away, by making it illegal for employees to organize and negotiate together. They even take away employers‘ rights – to sign a certain kind of contract.

So let’s give the other states a name instead: In a nod to the Jim Crow origin of these laws, let’s call the ones which don’t have these laws “free states.”

Free Ride

Right to Shirk laws allow freeloaders to profit from the efforts of others – without contributing to the effort, and in a way that harms the common good. The billionaires and corporations behind these laws wouldn’t deliberately do anything like that, would they? Why, that would be like letting people make billions from the works of government – things like roads, the Internet and publicly-educated customers – without paying their fair share of taxes.

Oh, wait.

Right to Shirk laws are job-killers. Here are four steps to understanding why:

1. Think nationally, not just locally.

Advocates say these laws create jobs. They don’t. Their “evidence” is based on studies which show modest job growth in Right to Shirk states when compared to free states.  But all that proves is that places that are politically hostile to organized labor also offer other types of corporate favoritism.

It also suggests that Right to Shirk states can steal jobs from free states — as long as the jobs last, anyway.

The Shirker movement was started in the late 1940s by a handful of Southern politicians who were in the palm of big textile mills. They were able to draw textile jobs away from free Northern cities like my hometown of Utica, NY – until those jobs left this country altogether.  That’s not “creating” jobs — that’s killing good jobs and replacing them with ones that don’t pay enough.

The concept of “solidarity” has been tarred with McCarthyite smears. But “solidarity” is just another way of saying “We’re all in this together.”  The Right to Shirk crowd wants to stop that kind of thinking so it can pit state against state and employee against employee, shredding our social fabric for personal gain.

It’s no accident that the Shirker movement was started by the reactionary white politicians of the Jim Crow South. Back then they were still pining for the days when they could offer some folks the “right to work” … for nothing.

2. We’re fighting over a shrinking pie instead of making the pie bigger.

Things are bad. We need millions of jobs – and the jobs we do have don’t pay enough.

The graphic which Business Insider likes to call “the scariest chart ever” shows how far we are from creating the number of jobs needed to make this country’s economy grow and thrive again.  Job growth like that we’ve seen recently is always welcome, but it’s not nearly enough to get us out of this ditch. How do we get moving again?

To answer that question we need to know what’s worked in the past.

3. The real “job creators” are people with jobs – good jobs.

How did this nation finally escape the after-effects of the Great Depression and begin its greatest decades of economic growth? Government spending  – on roads, bridges, schools, and other vitally needed services – played a key part.

Unions were a crucial part of this process, too. By fighting for higher wages and better benefits, unions ensure that working people have the means to purchase consumer items, housing, and other goods and services.  Companies have to hire more people to keep up with demand – and the good jobs keep coming.

That’s why the Republican Party platform of 1956 boasted that “unions have grown in strength and responsibility, and have increased their membership by 2 millions” during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first term. Back then Republicans understood that a growing middle class was good for the entire economy.  That party platform also said that “America does not prosper unless all Americans prosper.” Their rule: No shirkers.

But then in those days our economy wasn’t dominated by Wall Street megabanks – institutions that don’t build or sell anything. And politicians weren’t completely in bankers’ pockets back then, because the public wouldn’t have tolerated it.

We shouldn’t tolerate it now.

4. When you kill unions, that reduces consumer income – which kills jobs.

The Shirker assault on unions has taken its toll. Only 25 states remain free to unionize, and union membership has fallen dramatically:

 

Their logic would suggest that the plunge in union membership we’ve seen since 1960 must have led to a rise in good jobs.  Did it? Let’s take a look at manufacturing:

That’s my freehand drawing (and therefore not exact) of the trend line in union membership, superimposed by the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States.  Manufacturing jobs kept on increasing for more than twenty years, even as union membership increased. These jobs experienced periods of decline and stagnation as union membership fell, even before the devastating impact of NAFTA.

Consumer demand is vital to growth. That demand is tied to consumers’ income, and to their belief that life in the future will be as good or better than it is today.  Those are the two things we need to reinforce, and unions are crucial to that effort.

We need to get our economy growing again. Until then most Americans, unionized or not, will continue to struggle with stagnating wages and an ongoing economic drag that can feel a lot like a recession.  As Paul Krugman likes to say (he said it in our radio interview), This isn’t rocket science. We know how to do this.

Destroying unions is just another way for the Shirkers to make sure that we never do.

This post was originally posted on Our Future on December 13, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Richard Eskow is a well-known blogger and writer, a former Wall Street executive, an experienced consultant, and a former musician.  He has experience in health insurance and economics, occupational health, benefits, risk management, finance, and information technology.  He has a somewhat unique perspective on the current financial crisis, since he worked for AIG for a number of years (although not in its infamous Financial Products division). Richard has consulting experience in the US and over 20 countries. Past clients include USAID, the World Bank, the State Department, the Harvard School of International Public Health, the Government of Hungary, as well as corporations and investors. He has experience in financial and data analysis, systems design, operations, and management.


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Fewer Workers in Unions = Growing Income Inequality

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Credit: Joe Kekeris

The U.S. public is painfully aware of the growing income inequality in this nation.

Now, a new report shows a big reason why the gap is growing: fewer workers in unions.

Declining unionization was responsible for roughly one-third of the growth of wage inequality among men from 1973 to 2007, a new Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report finds. Declining unionization can explain roughly one-fifth of the growth of wage inequality among women over the same period (click to enlarge chart).

As the study points out, income inequality has increased not only because union members earn higher wages and have better retirement and health coverage, but with fewer union members, nonunion employers feel less pressure to raise wages and provide family-supporting benefits.

The percentage of the workforce represented by unions was stable in the 1970s but fell rapidly in the 1980s and continued to fall in the 1990s and the early 2000s, a period that corresponds to the nation’s growing income inequality.

EPI’s upcoming “The State of Working America” report, to be released Sept. 11, includes more on this study. (Read more previews from EPI’s biannual report.)

  • The union wage premium—the percentage-higher wage earned by those covered by a collective bargain­ing contract—is 13.6 percent over­all (17.3 percent for men and 9.1 percent for women).
  • Unionized workers are 28.2 percent more likely to be covered by employer-provided health insurance and 53.9 percent more likely to have employer-provided pensions.
  • From 1973 to 2011, the share of the workforce represented by unions declined from 26.7 percent to 13.1 percent.

Much of the decline in union membership stems from employers’ war on workers and their unions, a refrain echoed loudly this week at the Republican National Convention.

Chris Tilly, director of the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, writes today:

It’s U.S. employers who have perfected the art of the anti-union campaign, in which they ratchet up the tension, one-sided arguments and flat-out intimidation to the point where most workers will vote “no union” just to end the discord. Unfortunately decades-old U.S. labor laws do little to curb such tactics.

Big Business works hand in glove with its political puppets to quash the ability of workers to gain a voice at work because the union movement is one of the few forces that have the ability to politically challenge billionaire bankers through our grassroots mobilization efforts.

But Big Business and the billionaires who fund extremist politicians need to understand this, Tully writes:

It’s anti-American to be anti-union.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on August 31, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tula Connell got her first union card while she worked her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee they were represented by a hotel and restaurant local union (the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism (covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia) she started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), she now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.


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Canada Labor Laws Support Workers’ Freedom to Form Unions

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Credit: Joe Kekeris

In 1960, the same number of workers were in unions in Canada and in the United States. After that, unionization in this country started a steep decline. Yet Canada’s unionization rate has held fairly steady. By 2011, 11.8 percent of U.S. workers were in unions, compared with 29.7 percent in Canada (click chart to enlarge).

So what happened here?

According to the authors of a new Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) report released today, that question can be answered in two words: employer opposition.

Compared to Canada, many workers in the United States are not able to exercise their right to freely join and form unions and participate in collective bargaining, in large part because of employer opposition, which current labor law fails to adequately address.

Protecting Fundamental Labor Rights: Lessons from Canada for the United States” finds that Canada has two labor practices the United States does not:

1. Card-check recognition. Several jurisdictions in Canada have card-check authorization, in which a majority of employees at a workplace join unions by signing union authorization cards and submitting them to the labor board for verification. In the United States, petitioning the labor board with signed cards is typically just the first step in the process. Unless an employer chooses to voluntarily recognize a union, an election will be scheduled and held. During the time between the petition and the election, which is often delayed by employer opposition and can last for months, employers usually run anti-union campaigns— often committing illegal acts of coercion, intimidation or firing—in an attempt to discourage their employees from voting to unionize. The research presented here suggests that decreasing the opportunities for employers to conduct illegal practices—by implementing card-check authorization in the United States—would be the most effective way to curb this behavior.

2. First contract arbitration. Even after a union has been formed, employers continue to erect barricades in the face of employees’ wishes to collectively bargain. Although employers are required by law to bargain “in good faith,” in reality, they can delay the process with little to no penalty for doing so, with the hope of remaining “union-free.” First contract arbitration allows for a way through stalling tactics and bargaining impasse.

Check out the full CEPR report.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on August 28, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tula Connell got her first union card while she worked her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee they were represented by a hotel and restaurant local union (the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism (covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia) she started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), she now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.


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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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