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For much of the 20th century, labor unions were a major force in American life. Labor organizations grew in size alongside the surging U.S. economy. At one point in the 1950s, 35 percent of all workers in the country were unionized. But union membership dropped precipitously in recent decades; in 2018, only 10.5 percent of U.S. workers were in unions.
In the past two years, however, there has been a rise in successful union actions across the country. More than 485,000 workers took part in union-led work stoppages last year — up from 25,000 in 2017 — largely led by teacher strikes that brought higher wages and changes to classrooms.
The United Auto Workers union voted to ratify an agreement to end a six-week nationwide strike against General Motors, union leaders announced Friday. The deal establishes a bonus for eligible employees and a clearer path to permanent status for full-time temporary workers. Teachers in Chicago have been on strike for more than a week as they seek higher wages and smaller class sizes.
Why there’s debate
Some observers see this recent string of union actions as a sign that organized labor is having a resurgence. A strong economy has led to low unemployment, which gives workers more power to make demands of their employers, some argue. Others make the case that growing discontent with increased inequality and a decline in quality of life for the working class — both trends that coincide with the dwindling of unions — have turned public sentiment in favor of unions.
Others are skeptical that unions will recover from the sharp decline they experienced over the past 35 years. Even though high-profile strikes are drawing attention, membership numbers continue to decline and the economic upturn that’s empowering them will inevitably reverse, some say. Labor organizations were also dealt a significant blow in 2018 when the Supreme Court ruled against their ability to compel nonmembers to pay dues.
There is still strong skepticism of unions among both politicians and workers, some argue, which puts a cap on how much ground they can gain.
Movin’ on up
A strong economy empowers workers.
“Amid the lowest unemployment rate since 1969 and the overall economic boom, workers are feeling emboldened in ways they never did a decade ago.” — Chris Woodyard, USA Today
Successful strikes inspire more workers to take action.
“In social movements, you see waves of working-class activity as people learn from each other. There’s this idea of the politics of the possible. Most working people aren’t against unions or having more money and benefits, but there’s a risk to doing those things. But as more and more of these things happen and people win, then more people get on board.” — Labor expert Josh Murray to Washington Post
Union growth will have a snowball effect.
“A rise in unionized jobs would lead more workers to see the benefits of unions. And a greater number of workers in unions would increase their political clout, making it more difficult for politicians to cross them and neglect the interests of workers.” — Conor Sen, Bloomberg
Prominent progressive politicians could bring legislative changes that bolster unions.
“Democratic presidential candidates such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Julian Castro, and Beto O’Rourke have already released strong, detailed plans that would make it easier for millions of workers to join together on the job.”
— Mary Kay Henry, The Hill
Workers recognize that unions can help reverse inequality.
“The strong public opinion behind these strikes can be tied to Americans’ widespread dismay with wage stagnation and income inequality, even as corporate profits are flying high. While job numbers and economic growth are strong, many American are barely getting by.” — Steven Greenhouse, New York Times
Limit to power
Unions have fallen too far to ever recover.
“There is some evidence that unions are regrouping. But they do so from a weakened position, with fewer members and diminished revenues.” — Thomas B. Edsall, New York Times
Many workers don’t want to be part of a union.
“In reality, though, workers do know what is in their best interest, and oftentimes that is to take a pass on joining a union because they simply do not value the services unions offer.” — Trey Kovacs, Sun Sentinel
Corruption limits the power of unions.
“Because they are born not out of mutual exchange, but out of state-backed coercion, American unions inevitably face eventual demise triggered by their own corruption.” — Editorial, The Gazette (Colorado)
Legal rulings have undercut the power of unions.
“Not surprisingly, [Supreme Court] cases were a body blow to organized labor and its paid-for allies on the political Left.” — Ashley Varner, Washington Examiner
Unions no longer have the financial strength to influence politicians.
“Government labor unions are losing dues-paying members at an unprecedented rate, which is good news for workers and bad news for liberal coffers. The mass exodus is forcing leaders on the left to address a serious problem: Their decades of financial backing from fat cat union bosses may be coming to an end.” — Aaron Withe and Ashley Varner, Fox News
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