I Am Anxious That Unions Are Fading Away

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If you follow any part of lefty Twitter, you might have gotten the impression unions are reviving as a force to be reckoned with. Digital newsrooms are increasingly unionizing, even as the industry collapses around us, and legacy publications like the New Yorker are finally agreeing to simple demands like not firing workers without just cause. Workers at nonprofits are realizing that they, too, need to have their labor protected. Over the past several years, teachers across the country have risen up under the Red for Ed umbrella, an inspiring bout of activism that isn’t just about fighting for their own rights as employees but also protecting their students. NBA players staged a wildcat strike to protest police violence.

I love reading a good labor success story, and not just because they generally have a strong narrative arc. I’ve been co-chair of Mother Jones’ union for the past three years, and despite all the articles I’ve written or edited—and am biased to think all have been brilliant—winning a strong collective bargaining agreement for my colleagues is probably my proudest achievement since I started working here seven years ago. Everyone should unionize (I’m talking to you, middle managers) and then get feisty with their bosses!

But looking beyond the unionizing surge in some areas…that’s not what’s happening broadly in the country. There are now 27 states with so-called right-to-work laws that make it harder for unions to recruit and function, with five states, predominantly in the old industrial Midwest, adopting such laws over the past decade. As Josh Eidelson reported for Businessweek this summer, companies spend millions annually on anti-union “labor relation consultants” to tamp down union drives. “Each step forward [for labor],” he writes, “depends on a certain amount of luck and is vulnerable to being banned by hostile courts and politicians.”

Last year, just 10.3 percent of workers across the country belonged to a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a record low since the agency started tracking that stat in the ’80s, and the lowest rate since WWII. Though only a slight drop from the year before, the reality is that despite the resurgence of union activity, there’s been a trend of a steady decline over the past several decades. 

What’s even more troubling is the fact that there’s a split in the types of workers who belong to unions. Among public sector employees, the unionization rate is 33.6 percent. But for private employers, it’s a piddling 6.2 percent. And thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus ruling, public sector unions can’t require “fair share” dues, even while they’re bargaining on behalf of workers. So far that hasn’t been as devastating as some feared at the time, but that initial ruling could have been just an opening salvo. As In These Times reported this summer, the same plaintiff, Mark Janus, is back before the court, petitioning that in light of the 2018 ruling, the union should be forced to refund previously collected dues.

The court’s conservative majority was already predisposed to be anti-union, even before the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, and as Jacobin noted, her track record in lower court cases is that “corporate interests prevail over workers.” With a 6–3 conservative split on the court, it’s only a matter of time before the appearance of new legal attacks on organized labor, potentially trying to expand right-to-work to the entire country.

A President Joe Biden could try to stem this worrisome trend. He’s got an extensive plan for various ways to make organizing easier for current unions, while penalizing companies that try to punish workers trying to form unions, along with a call for card check and simpler elections. The former vice president also intends to push for a federal law to repeal the state-level right-to-work restrictions, all of which would vastly improve the landscape. Many of these plans are contained in the Protecting the Right to Organize Act that the House passed earlier this year. Timing, as we know, is everything, and that measure passed shortly before the pandemic shut down the economy (not that the bill would ever have arrived at President Trump’s desk for his signature).

Biden’s agenda would become law at the same time that, thanks to failures of the current Republican Senate to pass a COVID stimulus package, the economy will be in a dire state with millions unemployed. So far, it’s unclear how job losses have been distributed between union and non-union workers. With heavily unionized workforces like the airline industry furloughing and laying off workers, the numbers from the Department of Labor next year won’t be pretty. Plus, the lack of federal aid means state and local government budgets might have to be slashed drastically, potentially cutting into those heavily unionized workforces.

Still, anxious as I am, I keep trying to reassure myself with the fact that maybe lefty Twitter is onto something. Maybe the spirit of these smaller union organizing drives could lead to a broader revitalization nationally. As the namesake of our magazine put it, “The first thing is to raise hell. That’s always the first thing to do when you’re faced with an injustice and you feel powerless. That’s what I do in my fight for the working class.” —Patrick Caldwell


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