Everyone has a story about some union excess they know of. I know I do. There is no question that unions have attracted both criminals and the over-zealous – like in politics or the business world. And I confess that I joined the United Steel Workers union when I was 19 so that I could work summers in the Ohio mills, so I am not totally unbiased.
When I went into the mills in 1968 about 30% of the labor force was unionized. By 1981 when Ronald Reagan broke the PATCO strike the figure was about 22%. Today, only about 12% of the workforce is unionized. That’s around 15 million workers, but that understates the decline of unions since the loss is almost totally in the private sector. Today, more than half of all union members are government employees, which makes it all the easier to demonize unions.
This decline didn’t happen because workers got tired of being in unions, it happened because business relentlessly fought to keep their workers from unionizing, and just as hard to drive them out of business when they could; NAFTA is a good example of the kind of tactics that drove good union jobs abroad by making it easy to import almost anything made abroad by people paid pennies an hour, in factories with no safety or environmental rules to deal with.
Fewer high-paying union jobs means less money goes into the U.S. economy. Not surprisingly, the last decade has given us virtually no job growth and no real wage increases. But we’ve seen fantastic gains in business productivity – all of which went to the management and shareholders.
If it weren’t for unions it would be a very different work environment than the one we have today. Unions gave us the only health care insurance system this country has ever had. Unions got children out of mines, gave us the 40-hour work week, vacations, and paid overtime. Unions made safety, including environmental safety, important issues. And they gave American working men and women the highest standard of living in the world.
Were there excesses? Yes there were. But that was part of the price we paid for having a thriving, blue collar middle class that bought all the stuff we made and provided the money to send their children to college so they could become upper middle-class, white collar weenies who used their skills to beat down the unions as they drove their Toyotas and BMWs to their executive jobs.