HR Leads Business

Sep 2, 2018 | Barry Lawrence, MBA, aPHR, HRCI Staff Writer

Is It the End or a New Beginning for the Labor Movement?

It’s Labor Day! For most, this marks the end of summer – an opportunity for backyard barbecues and last-minute back-to-school shopping. But Labor Day’s original intent, as a holiday, is to honor the American Labor Movement, with its beginning in the 1700s.

So, what is the state of the U.S. Labor Movement in 2018?

Union Membership Has Declined

Some argue that union membership is on life support.

At its peak in 1954, union membership was over 34 percent. But since then, union membership has been on a steady decline.

In 2017, only 11 percent of U.S. workers were labor union members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Factors such as increased international competition and technological innovation have greatly weakened union participation in recent years.

More Union Challenges

An additional roadblock to union participation came in the form of a June U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The ruling dealt a huge blow to public-sector unions – taking away a union’s power to collect fees from non-participating members. The court found it to be a First Amendment violation for a public sector union to take payments from nonconsenting members.

The impact? The ruling likely means lower wages and a 726,000 reduction in the union membership of state and local government workers, according to a study referenced by The Atlantic.

Not So Fast, Union Leaders Say

Although union membership has reached rock bottom – union leaders say they are now re-energized.

Union activists and supporters across 22 states impacted by the Supreme Court ruling, for example, recently came out in large numbers to protect the "fair share" provision, which requires nonmembers to pay fees.

It just means "unions must work harder to recruit and represent their members," says John Gallagher, a columnist with the Detroit Free Press and President of the Newspaper Guild of Detroit.

He points to the rallies as evidence of union resurgence. "[A] union that’s not in the streets is not a union," he says.

Randi Weingarten, President of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers, agrees. "The reports of our death are greatly exaggerated," she says in The Atlantic.

People Movements Alive and Well

Public opinion generally remains supportive of union contributions. About half of Americans – 51 percent – view the decline of union representation as a "mostly bad" thing for working people, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Unions, supporters say, protect workers from exploitation at the hands of profit-driven corporations.

On the other hand, 35 percent say the decline of unions is "mostly good." This group argues that unions do not always act in the best interests of workers and that they have outlived their usefulness. On Quora, many sides of the union debate are represented.

New Voices Emerge

Organizations have come a long way in the treatment of workers since the 1700s. Most employers today are seeking ways to empower workers, not the other way around. Still, problems emerge, as exemplified by sexual harassment complaints, pay inequity quarrels and other employee issues that have intensified in recent years.

Employees organize when workplace trust and fairness have eroded. Unions may be on the decline, but modern-day movements, such as #MeToo, Time’s Up and Occupy Wall Street (OWS), have already spawned significant change.

In 2011, OSW made income inequality a household topic. Today, 48 percent of companies say they are reviewing pay policies to eliminate compensation gaps, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

"Most importantly, regardless of whether or not the wage gap exists in any measurable form, companies, employees, and managers should do everything they can to make sure that equal work means equal pay across the board," says Challenger in a press release.

So, in honor of the Labor Day, let’s salute the efforts of unions, modern-day causes and forward-thinking organizations who work each day to challenge norms and help to make our work – and lives – better. We’re all in this together to help people and organizations excel.