In the midst of a wave of widely reported unionization and with public support of unions higher than in half a century, it might seem that American workers are currently gaining more power than they have in some time. But these recent trends have appeared in the context of 50 years of union membership decline, historically infrequent union action, and radically diminished political power for organized labor. The union membership rate in the United States is as low as it has been since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (which enshrined workers’ right to collectively bargain) in 1935.
A foundational study by labor sociologist Jake Rosenfeld suggests there is a more underreported story to be found below the surface of this complicated landscape. It is not possible, as it once was, to view union membership and strike frequency as metrics of worker power. Instead, unions and workers’ groups are organizing with other progressive organizations in new ways to win victories for union and nonunion workers alike.
- New, previously unavailable datasets have allowed researchers to develop new ways to measure the economic and social impact of unionization with greater specificity and accuracy. One major area is the impact on wages. Research in the last decade has found that households with union members have been paid 15–20 percent higher than nonunion households since the 1930s. The link between declining union membership and falling pay is consistent across almost all industries (even those that have largely avoided the deleterious effects of automation and globalization on wages).
- The decline in union participation has weakened the influence of unions politically and exacerbated inequality. Unions have been historically effective at winning political victories for workers, but in the absence of a US labor party, the labor movement has struggled to maintain broad political influence in either of the main parties.
- Unions can have a positive impact all workers, not simply their members. This is evident in three ways: employers may offer workers a fair wage so they might be less tempted to join a union (often called the “threat effect” on wages); organized labor has a positive relationship with progressive legislators, who tend to be pro-worker; andunions shape national expectations of what is considered a fair wage in the economy. Therefore, the unionization rate does not adequately capture the impact unions have on wages or working conditions for workers overall. Similarly, a 2016 study found that nonunion men would have about 8 percent higher wages if unionization rates remained as strong now as they were in the 1970s. And a 2018 paperfound that the connection between union density and nonunion wages is evident even after controlling for occupation and region.
- Workers have waged successful campaigns improve their working conditions outside of organized labor altogether.Data suggest that up to a third of work stoppages arise from workers without union representation. Rosenfeld suggests that industrial action by workers at Walmart in the early 2010s contributed to the company increasing worker pay and reforming their scheduling policy. These victories happened outside of the traditional union structure but were victories nonetheless. Rosenfeld dubs this “rising laborism without labor.”
- Despite headwinds, unions in antiunions states have notched some significant wins. Recent union-led, low-wage worker campaigns have proved incredibly successful. The 2018 teacher strike in West Virginia, followed by similar strikes in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona, all proved substantial labor victories in states with low union member rates and antiunion laws.
- Unions are working with progressive and “alt-labor” organizations in new ways to earn concessions from employers and win over lawmakers to their cause. These victories are not always reflected by the topline union membership rate or official strike statistics, which, by historical standards, remain low. In 2010, the United Food and Commercial Workers union started the Organization United for Respect at Walmart(OUR Walmart) to help coordinate the efforts of Walmart employees. Rosenfeld notes a rise in what he calls “alt-labor” organizations: those that organize workers but do so outside of the traditional labor union structure, like Fight for 15 and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. They provide legal aid to workers, lobby governments, and campaign for workers’ rights but lack a dues-paying structure and are instead financed by donations from individuals and foundations. They can help restore political power to workers where traditional unions have lost it.
Policy, practice, and research implications
Based on the paper’s findings, WorkRise has identified the following implications for research, policy, and practice.
- Improve data collection on worker organizing. From a research perspective, Rosenfeld makes clear that it will be hard to capture trends in worker organizing without better data. The Bureau of Labor statistics stopped recording walkouts of less than 1,000 people in the 1980s, missing a huge mass of worker action. Researchers have instead relied on Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service data, which do not record unofficial work stoppages like that seen at Walmart and in a number of fast food restaurants in the 2010s. It is also hard to know how many Americans are involved in what Rosenfeld dubs alt-labor organizations, as the Current Population Survey only records data on union membership.
- Study the labor market effects of alternative forms of worker organizing. Rosenfeld’s paper spells out important ways alternative labor groups are improving outcomes for individual workers, but more research is needed on the larger labor market effects of such efforts. This research could analyze the magnitude of alt-labor victories for workers’ wages and benefits, the correlation between the strength of these groups and wage growth, or improvements to working conditions and benefits in areas experiencing declining union strength.
- Strengthen co-enforcement of labor laws. Legislation like the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would strengthen workers’ ability to collectively bargain within traditional union structures and the rights and wages of nonunion members too. However, given the current political situation, it is unlikely that the PRO Act will pass anytime soon. Lawmakers could strengthen alt-labor organizations by facilitating the coenforcement of labor laws (between labor standards agencies, worker centers, and community groups) and strengthening the role of hiring halls in the employment of new workers. These changes would benefit the rights of workers through both traditional and novel means.