News

The Numbers Game & the Press

- By Jeff Monahan

Journalists and bloggers love to ask and answer the same old questions.  You can read the same articles about unions every week, each time from a different author:

Journalist 1: Why are union membership numbers down?

Journalist 2: Is the US labor movement dead?

Journalist 3: What is next for labor unions?

The media loves to ask and answer these questions.  They love to make low membership numbers out to be a catastrophic event.  It must have been someone’s fault.  Here’s how the world will turn upside down if this continues.  The end is near!

Each person has a different answer for the problem they have invented, and each has a different prediction to match.  But no article that I have read suggests the simplest explanation as the answer, probably because it is not calculated to get a lot of page views.  If we cut the crap and look at this objectively, Occam’s Razor shows us that there’s less of a problem than there probably ever has been.

Look, when the labor movement really started taking shape in the US in the late 19thand early 20th centuries, conditions of employment were bad.  BAD.  This was before antitrust legislation was enacted by Congress so there were no regulations on monopolies.  Unbridled capitalism was at its highest.  Business owners had the power to exploit competitors in their industry and their work force as well.

For many jobs, there were no age limits for workers, no weekly hour limits, no safety requirements.  People were enslaved to their occupation because nothing else was available and what was available was not much better.  So, they unionized.  Everyone unionized.  It was dangerous not to unionize.  And through the help of legislation, over time everything got better.

Now it’s not like you’re risking life by not being a member of the unions.  Yet journalists ask these questions like it’s some kind of shock the legislation was passed in the 1930s and almost 80 years later most of the problems it was intended to correct have been solved.

Ironically, one of the contributory reasons for union membership being down is because unions WORK.

Consider the converse: if membership numbers were at all-time highs, wouldn’t that mean that there was a problem of a magnitude similar to 100 years ago? We should consider ourselves very lucky – and proud – that the issues unions face in negotiations now include pension plans and health care and not merely issues of the age, wage, working conditions nature.  Labor in the US has come a long way.

This does not go to say that problems do not exist.  There a huge problems with the way workers are still treated and where the biggest problems do exist, unions are alive and well.  In these industries, unions are just as important as they ever have been.  Unionization will be paramount for WalMart employees, for example, if they are ever going to get the respect they deserve from their employer.  And you better believe that when it happens, their workers will band together in impressive numbers.

Yet people still try to evaluate the strength of the labor movement solely based on membership numbers.  If you look at it from the perspective of other movements where membership numbers are not as available to produce simple ratios, it becomes clearer how much progress has been made.  The NAACP peaked at 600,000 members during the 1960s and now claims between 250,000 and 500,000 members.  Is it any surprise that the membership has decreased after major legislative changes were passed?  Similarly, would we consider it a problem if fewer feminists were publishing books or organizing marches each year?  Perhaps if their voices were being suppressed, but not if they gained gender equality at last.  Likewise, if gay pride parades were held only to promote individualism and self-expression as opposed to raising awareness and demanding equal treatment, wouldn’t that be great?  Sometimes less means you’re closer to getting what you wanted in the beginning.

This should not marginalize the importance of unions in the least bit. They are every ounce as important as they ever have been. The union-employer relationship will always be adversarial because it is business in nature.  Unions will always be a necessary economic counterbalance to employers.  On the other hand, the fight for equal rights among genders, races, and orientation is arguably against ourselves, not a single identifiable corporate power.

Thus, unions have existed and will continue to exist, and we should not read into membership numbers too much, whether they are high or low.  Don’t be put off by the repetitive articles that try to drive home a new explanation for why union membership is lower than it used to be. That’s how change works, and change will continue to take form due to unions and their political voice.  We should be concerned with legislation like Right to Work laws that aim to silence union voices, but even they cannot alter the fact that solidarity is a tried, tested, and true way to earn change.  Membership may be down, but unions are strong and effective in America.  Always have been, always will be.

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