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Why Unions Still Matter

Michael D. Yates is Associate Editor of Monthly Review. His many publications include Cheap Motels and a Hotplate: An Economist’s Travelogue (2007), Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy (2003), and Why Unions Matter (2009), all published by Monthly Review Press. Read his blog Cheap Motels and a Hotplate: An Economist’s Travelogue. This article is a slightly expanded version of the preface to the new second edition of Why Unions Matter, now available from Monthly Review Press.

The first edition of Why Unions Matter was published in 1998. In it I argued that unions mattered because they were the one institution that had dramatically improved the lives of the majority of the people and had the potential to radically transform both the economic and political landscape, making both more democratic and egalitarian. I showed with clear and decisive data that union members enjoyed significant advantages over nonunion workers: higher wages, more and better benefits, better access to many kinds of leaves of absence, a democratic voice in their workplaces, and a better understanding of their political and legal rights. What is more, unions benefitted nonunion workers through their political agitations and through what is called the “spillover” effect—nonunion employers will treat their employees better if only to avoid unionization.

This assessment of the impact of unions has not changed in the second edition. What was said ten years ago is true today. I have updated the numbers, but they still show that unions matter. Other things being equal (that is taking two groups of workers alike with respect to experience, education, region of country, industry, occupation, and marital status), union workers in 2007 earned $1.50 an hour more than nonunion workers, a wage premium of 14.1 percent. This wage premium was highest for black and Hispanic workers, meaning that unionization reduces racial wage inequality. The union premium was even greater for benefits: 28.2 percent for health insurance, 53.9 percent for pensions, 26.6 percent for vacations, and 14.3 percent for holidays. These union advantages have diminished over the past decade because union density (the share of employed wage workers in unions) has fallen. This decline has also compromised both the union impact on inequality and nonunion wages and benefits.1 There have been many reasons for the decline in union membership and density—and these are discussed at length in the new edition of Why Unions Matter. However, we can say here that falling density means a tremendous loss for the working class: lost wages and benefits for all workers, still less response by the government to the needs of workers, and a smaller counterweight to the forces that have given rise to greater inequality.

Maybe unions matter even more today than they did in 1998. Working men and women are more vulnerable to a host of problems than they were then:

  • Because of the electronic revolution, the radical reorganization of the labor process, and the political deregulation of important product and financial markets, employers are more likely to move operations to lower-wage parts of the United States and to poorer countries. They are also more inclined to threaten to do so. Try to buy U.S.-made shoes, toys, jewelry, and a host of other consumer goods. If your automobile is made in the United States, chances are good that it was manufactured in union-free southern states.
  • Employers are more likely to contract out to lower-wage states and nations both labor-intensive operations such as call centers and higher-wage labor like computer programming and medical service work. When we make inquiries about our computers, our credit card bills, our health insurance, the person on the other side of the phone will very likely be in a foreign country.
  • Deregulated globalization, fueled in part by antilabor trade agreements, has displaced working people in poor countries like Mexico from their land and jobs. Large numbers have come to the United States, intensifying competition in some labor markets, allowing employers to divide and conquer their workforces, and giving an excuse for xenophobes like CNN’s Lou Dobbs to foment anti-immigrant hysteria, which helps to keep domestic workers’ from seeing clearly that it is their employers (and the employers’ allies in government) that are their true enemies. As we shall see, the influx of immigrants offers the labor movement new and enthusiastic troops for rebirth and revitalization.
  • Over the last ten years and especially during the administration of George W. Bush, our government has been increasingly under the thumb of corporate interests. The failure of organized labor to provide a counterweight to this has allowed a corporate-political alliance to sweep away most of the safety nets that protect us from the vagaries of the market and the inevitable occurrences of failing health, old age, and workplace injuries. Our health insurance system is in tatters, with nearly fifty million people without coverage and tens of millions more with inadequate and expensive coverage. These numbers grow each year. Few workers have the once common defined benefit pensions, in which they are guaranteed predictable monthly incomes when they retire. Instead, the declining fraction of workers who have pensions must accept defined contribution plans, in which they put up the money, sometimes with an employee match, and then must decide in what type of stock or bond fund to invest. How much money is available depends on the amount they were able to put into their funds, the size of the employer match, and the performance of the funds. The social security system, which is well-managed, financially sound, and capable of providing decent pensions for all, has been attacked by labor’s enemies in a propaganda campaign aimed at privatization. Workplace safety has become a dead letter as has the enforcement of our labor laws. Those programs aimed at the poor, including those who lose their jobs, have been shredded, less generous in terms of both coverage and benefits. Workers were encouraged to consider their homes as security blankets, assets they could sell or borrow against to deal with emergencies or just to supplement incomes. But now the notion that a house is an asset that always rises in value is another big joke, one made at the expense of the working class. All in all, we can say with certainty that workers have lost ground economically, while those who hire them and invest in their companies, those who loan them money or hold their mortgages, have taken what workers have lost and lined their own pockets. Inequality of income and wealth have not been as great as they are now since the 1920s.
  • While our government has eagerly helped employers beat down their workers, it has just as fervently wasted hundreds of billions of dollars waging war. In fact, the two phenomena are connected. War spending starves social programs and socially useful public investments. The war in Iraq may cost as much as three trillion dollars, money enough to implement a national health care system, expand social security, and begin to make the public investments needed to restore the health of our badly ravaged environment. Wars also are always harmful to the rights of workers. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the federal government put in place measures to deny the rights of many federal workers to unionize and threatened to invoke antiterrorism laws to stop strikes. A climate of war is a climate of fear and accusation. One right-wing pundit said on Fox Television that a national health care system would encourage terrorist physicians, willing to work for less, to come to the United States. Here it is interesting to note that in Iraq, where the United States was supposedly engineering a democratic society from scratch, unions and strikes are for all practical purposes illegal.
  • Compounding worker insecurity has been the collapse of two financial bubbles, first the stock market crash that began in 2000 and the real estate debacle that commenced in 2007. The recovery from the first was one of the weakest on record, and working-class living standards never returned to where they were at the end of the last century. Some were able to maintain their incomes or make up for money shortfalls by borrowing, with credit cards and by taking out home equity loans. Both allowed consumer spending to grow faster than it would have otherwise. Now, however, the bursting of the housing bubble has left workers with a mountain of debt and no way out.

It is difficult to imagine that this litany of working-class woes can be challenged and eradicated without strong unions and a vibrant labor movement. What has organized labor done to redress the many grievances of those who labor for a living? One would think that the events of the past ten years have sown fertile grounds for the development of a powerful labor movement.

Perhaps no phrase captures what has happened in the labor movement of the United States more than the old saying that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” When the first edition came out, labor movement activists and scholars in the United States had high hopes for the “New Voice” movement, which in 1995 captured power in the AFL-CIO, the nation’s labor federation. Led by John Sweeney, Richard Trumka, and Linda Chavez Thompson, New Voice promised a thoroughgoing transformation. Union membership would grow again; labor’s political power would reassert itself; international solidarity would become the order of the day. There would once again be a labor movement.

Thirteen years after New Voice’s inauguration, not much has changed. Workers are not joining unions. In 1995, union density was nearly 15 percent. In 2007, it was around 12 percent. There are fewer union members today than there were in 1995. The private sector has so hemorrhaged union members that union density there is now about 7.5 percent, below what it was before the Great Depression. A few unions, most notably the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), have grown, but, in the case of SEIU, there is considerable controversy over the manner in which the union has gained new members, with critics arguing that its growth has not strengthened the labor movement.

Organized labor in the United States has never had the formidable political presence of workers’ organizations in other parts of the world. However, there have been times when labor wielded some political clout. The record of New Voice here is not a good one. The AFL-CIO and its member unions have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to get sympathetic politicians elected to office, and with some success. Yet this has not translated into legislation that empowers working men and women. Except for a couple of badly needed increases in the minimum wage, the opposite has occurred. Whether the president has been Democrat or Republican, labor has gotten the short end of the stick: “free trade” agreements, an end to most federal aid to the poor, worsening health care, more working-class people in prison, the refusal to enforce the nation’s labor laws, and endless wars that have drained public coffers of funds that might have been used to enhance the lives of ordinary folks. And as critic of the labor movement Kim Moody points out, there is a direct correspondence between the increase in the amounts of money and effort labor has expended politically and the decline in organizing efforts.2

During an election year, organizing is put on hold and tens of thousands of hours are devoted to getting a Democrat elected. If a Democrat is elected, nothing happens to make it easier for unions to organize new members, so unions are no better off than before. Once when I worked for the United Farm Workers union, César Chávez ordered the entire staff to move to Los Angeles to campaign for Mayor Tom Bradley’s reelection. Bradley didn’t need us to win, and he had little power to improve the lot of farm workers. At the time, there were organizing drives and collective bargaining crucial to the union that needed attention. They didn’t get it as we wasted our time canvassing for Bradley—a good example of what Moody is talking about.

New Voice did change the international approach of the AFL-CIO. It got out of bed, at least partially, with the CIA and the U.S. State Department, eliminating the various labor “Institutes” established during the Cold War to help suppress radical labor organizations around the world and assist those labor unions and political parties that allied themselves with the imperial interests of the United States. New Voice created the Center for International Labor Solidarity (CILS) and showed a new willingness to support labor efforts around the globe that it would have opposed in the past. However, Kim Moody tells us:

But there are still troubling signs. For example, the AFL-CIO’s backing of the Venezuelan Confederation of Labor (CTV) whose strike appeared to lead-off the coup against Hugo Chavez. Here, the CILS claimed they used money from the National Endowment for Democracy, the neo-conservative run government agency that funded AFL-CIO Cold War foreign activities since the early 1980s, to support progressive forces within the CTV. The AFL-CIO still takes NED money, but claims there are no strings attached. They will not report on where or for what the money is spent. They don’t reveal what they do in most of the forty countries where CILS is active.3

All things considered, it would be difficult to argue that New Voice has succeeded, even on its own terms. The new AFL-CIO was a breath of fresh air compared to the moribund and badly compromised administrations of Sweeney’s predecessors Lane Kirkland and George Meany.

But the air has gotten pretty stale, so much so that new rumblings began inside the Federation as early as 2000. Ironically, the sharpest criticisms came from Sweeney’s old union, the SEIU, whose president, Andrew Stern, has become the most famous labor leader in the United States. Stern and his allies said that the AFL-CIO and most member unions were not serious about organizing. They suggested that they should pay lower per capita dues to the AFL-CIO so that they would have more money for organizing. Gradually several unions formed a coalition called the New Unity Partnership (NUP) to press for changes in the AFL-CIO. Labor activists and scholars Fernando Gapasin and Bill Fletcher Jr. point to four key changes Stern and company wanted. First, the AFL-CIO had too many unions, causing many overlaps in jurisdiction. Some unions would have to merge with others to ensure greater efficiency of operations. Second, the AFL-CIO had to establish core jurisdictions (for example, health care) and a specific union had to be given the sole right to organize the workers in this area. Whatever union this might be would have the needed resources once the necessary mergers had created unions that could take advantage of economies of scale. Third, unions and the Federation should practice more international solidarity, making direct contact with foreign unions, organizing with them, and even forming true international unions. Fourth, labor had to reevaluate its relationship with the Democratic Party. The party had to be held accountable for promises made to organized labor.4

The NUP consisted of the SEIU, the Laborers, HERE, UNITE (which merged restaurant, hotel, garment, and textile workers), and the Carpenters (which had already left the AFL-CIO). To some this seemed an odd alliance. The Carpenters and Laborers had done good organizing work, but they had long histories of corruption and had never been in the forefront of labor’s progressive forces. Perhaps there was more to the NUP forces than simply revitalizing a moribund labor movement. Maybe these unions wanted to keep more of their members’ dues money. Perhaps there were personality conflicts between Stern and Sweeney. Maybe the NUP saw good opportunities for organizing in the service sector, which is not as threatened by offshoring and outsourcing as is the good-producing part of the economy, and did not want to support the unions in manufacturing. Certainly there were those in the rest of the AFL-CIO who agreed that more organizing was critical to labor’s survival and that some reorganization of the federation would be a good thing.

In any event, the NUP disappeared in late 2004, but a new organization appeared in June 2005—the Change to Win Coalition (CTW). This group included two more unions, the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers, which raised more suspicions, since these unions were also far removed from labor’s progressive elements. Change to Win proponents now argued that it would be necessary to greatly streamline the AFL-CIO—reducing the funds available to it from member unions that committed to organizing, while at the same time giving it power to merge unions, prevent mergers, eliminate central labor councils—if union density was to increase. While it is impossible yet to say what the initial goal of CTW was vis-à-vis the AFL-CIO, it soon became clear that unless the AFL-CIO agreed to CTW demands for dues rebates and restructuring, the CTW unions would secede. Curiously, CTW leaders never went out of their way to negotiate with the rest of the AFL-CIO and try to work out compromises, much less call for a far-reaching debate on rebuilding the labor movement. The leading actor in all this was the SEIU, which usually put the issues at stake in terms of organizing. Stern and the SEIU said that unless every step possible was taken immediately to raise union density, the labor movement would die. Stern’s allies began to make references to the formation of the CIO in the 1930s, implying that the growing split between CTW and the rest of the AFL-CIO could lead to a labor revolution.

CTW, now including the once iconic union the United Farm Workers, did break with the AFL-CIO, and in September 2005 in St. Louis the breakaway unions formed the Change to Win Federation. Just as they did with New Voice, many labor activists and progressives jumped aboard this new agent of change. Three years later, it is fair to ask why. CTW has made little headway in building a new labor movement, no more so than has the AFL-CIO. Comparisons with the CIO rang hollow from the start, and now they seem preposterous. Some CTW unions have organized new members, but the manner in which the major organizing union, the SEIU, has done so has raised serious questions, as I show in the second edition. Some CTW unions have made good on their promise to consolidate their operations into fewer but larger locals, but this too has generated much controversy. CTW has done little to establish core jurisdictions assigned to specific unions, and it is doubtful that it will. As with their AFL-CIO counterparts, CTW and its affiliated unions have thrown gobs of money at the Democratic Party, especially in the 2008 presidential race. But to describe the Democratic Party nominee, Barack Obama, as a strong supporter of unions and the labor movement would be a stretch. Not much in the way of international solidarity has been achieved by CTW either, certainly nothing that would distinguish its unions from any number of AFL-CIO affiliates. Ironically it was the United Steelworkers union, an AFL-CIO stalwart, that forged a merger with an amalgamated British union to create a true international organization.

Something troubling about CTW and its main affiliate, the SEIU, is its devotion to the language of corporate management. As Kim Moody explains, “[t]he language of [CTW] leaders had the sound of corporate-speak.” The new federation would “grow the labor movement” through increased “market share” and “value-added integration.” SEIU hires business experts to train staff and lead seminars, and staff in turn comb the pages of journals like the Harvard Business Review for guidance.5

So first New Voice, then Change to Win. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Unfortunately, these two efforts to change the lives of workers have done little to affect what has really been changing, namely the conditions under which working men and women labor. In addition, neither New Voice nor Change to Win has done anything to change the ideological terrain. An important part of the employers’ attacks on labor has been a relentless assault on the notion that collective organization and action are good things: Unions are outsiders interested only in dues money. The government is a denier of individual freedom and a thief that takes our hard-earned money. Its only legitimate function is to defend the country from the collective hordes bent on destroying our hallowed way of life. We are, each of us, on our own, and this is a good thing. When we act in groups, we inevitably act against our own interests and trample the liberty of others.

The labor movement has not challenged this world view effectively. It has not come out foursquare for publicly funded universal health care. It has not rejected in toto the imperialism evident in every aspect of U.S. foreign policy, one that endangers workers everywhere in the world. It has not begun a national discussion on race, the main divider of workers. Union organizers for Barack Obama have gone out of their way to avoid talking about race to members who have expressed reservations about the candidate. Labor has continued to embrace the reactionary idea of partnership with employers, which is a cornerstone of the program of Change to Win. Tellingly, it has, with a few exceptions, failed to educate its members in any but a superficial way, leaving them in the dark on the issues that matter most. In the internal structure of its unions, it has replicated its class enemy. Some union leaders sneer at the very thought of democracy.

We all need a compass to find our way. For workers, unions and a labor movement must provide that compass. They have not. Until they do, no amount of top-down reform, no new union federation, no increase in union density will provide for workers the freer and richer lives they deserve.

Amidst the many failings and shortcomings of unions and the labor movement, there have been bright spots too. Not long after the first edition went to press, many unions joined the fight for global justice and against the uncontrolled globalization that had been driving wages and working conditions downward worldwide. The most famous struggle occurred in Seattle in 1999. But just as this movement was gaining traction, the events of September 11, 2001, created conditions in the United States that made it difficult for a labor movement so tied historically to U.S. foreign policy to continue to participate. To its credit, the AFL-CIO and many member unions did not give the full-throated support for the “War on Terror” that its predecessors had given to the war in Vietnam. And unionists opposed to it formed a group that continues to exist—United States Labor Against the War (USLAW). Fernando Gapasin and I described this group as follows:

This organization, comprised of individuals, unions, and other progressive organizations is not only opposed to the U.S. war in Iraq but to U.S. foreign policy itself. Its statement of principles—a just foreign policy, an end to U.S. occupation of foreign countries, a redirecting of the nation’s resources, bringing U.S. troops home now, protecting civil rights and the rights of workers and immigrants, and solidarity with workers and their organizations around the world—is remarkable in light of the sordid history of organized labor’s support for U.S. imperialism.6

Just as remarkable is that the AFL-CIO has not only tolerated USLAW but given it tacit support by itself condemning the war in Iraq.

Dan Clawson in his book The Next Upsurge: Labor and the New Social Movements describes and analyzes several important and successful organizing campaigns:

  • unionization by women that focused on nontraditional issues such as child care;
  • union alliances with community groups, most notably the famous Justice for Janitors campaigns of the SEIU, but also efforts by unions and community groups in Hartford, Connecticut to win affordable housing for workers;
  • campaigns waged by Workers’ Centers, sometimes independently and sometimes in alliance with labor unions. Janice Fine defines such centers as “community-based and community-led organizations that engage in a combination of service, advocacy, and organizing to provide support to low-wage workers. The vast majority of them have grown up to serve predominantly or exclusively immigrant populations. However, there are a few centers that serve a primarily African American population or bring immigrants together with African Americans.”7 I have much more to say about Workers’ Centers in the book. As Fine says, they are intimately connected to growing immigrant communities in the United States, and they will be a critical component of any future labor renewal;
  • living wage and anti-sweatshop organizing, which have been successful in forcing many cities to pay workers employed by firms with public contracts a wage that would yield an income at least equal to the federal poverty level of income and compelled universities to stop selling apparel manufactured under appalling conditions in low-wage countries. College students have expanded their anti-sweatshop actions to include the organizing of poorly paid employees on their campuses.8

Some of this organizing has born fruit in terms of union membership. During the end of 2007 and the first half of 2008, membership increased in two important cities—Boston and Los Angeles. In Boston, cab drivers, security guards, truck drivers, communications technicians, and home-care assistants, among others, added more than 6,000 workers to union rosters.9 Most of these employees were organized through atypical means, that is, outside the purview of the National Labor Relations Board. In Los Angeles, union density rose from 15.9 percent in 2007 to 17 percent by mid-2008, while in California it increased from 16.7 to 17 percent. Both increases reversed many years of declining density. Remarkably, union density also went up in the nation as a whole, from 12 to 12.6 percent. This is not enough time to establish a trend, but it is heartening nonetheless.10

I am not as optimistic as Clawson that there will soon be a labor upsurge. Still, his book shows that there are important and interesting things happening in the world of organized labor. For the past twenty-eight years I have been a labor educator, teaching union workers and students in union halls, motel and hotel meeting rooms, in college and university classrooms, and through the Internet. I know from this experience that unions are as needed as ever, that there are thousands of thoughtful union brothers and sisters out there, struggling to rebuild their unions and give back to unions the local and national relevance they once had. There are union officers around the nation trying to mobilize and educate their members, not just to empower them in their own workplace, important as this is, but to help them grasp the economics and politics of the times in which we live. They are trying to build the multiethnic, multiracial unions and labor movement of men and women that will really mean it when saying, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”


  1. The data in this paragraph are taken from Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein, and Heidi Shierholz, The State of Working America 2008/2009, advance proofs (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009), Tables 3.32 and 3.33. An invaluable source of union data is the Web site of the Bureau of Labor Statistics: This is the source for union membership in the article.
  2. Kim Moody, US Labor in Trouble and Transition (London: Verso, 2007), especially chapter 8.
  3. Moody, US Labor in Trouble and Transition, 136.
  4. Bill Fletcher Jr. and Fernando Gapasin, Solidarity Divided (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2008), chapters 14 and 15. Moody also analyzes Change to Win, in chapter 9.
  5. Moody, US Labor in Trouble and Transition, 172.
  6. Fernando Gapasin and Michael Yates, “Labor Movements: Is There Hope?,” Monthly Review 57,  no. 2 (June 2005).
  7. Janice Fine,
  8. Daniel Clawson, The Next Upsurge: Labor and the New Social Movements (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003).
  9. Nicole C. Wong, Boston Globe, August 30, 200.
  10. Ruth Milkman and Bongoh Kye, The State of the Unions in 2008: A Profile of Union Membership in Los Angeles, California, and the United States (Los Angeles: UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, 2008).


2009, Volume 60, Issue 09 (February)
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