The Future of the US Lies in Labor Unions

I’ve pointed out in great detail in a number of other posts that the United States is nowhere near broke. Despite the best efforts of the Republican Party, we are still the richest nation in the world, and the dollar is still the most stable currency in the world economy. What makes our country seem broke at times is Republicans incredibly irresponsible stewardship of our government and the economy. (And yes, right wingers, both of those are related.)

Look at what happened to Wisconsin after Koch-backed Republicans took over the state. What’s the first thing they did – well, after they cut the hell out of the budget and reduced taxes on the rich, I mean? They tried to kill the teacher’s union. Why would they do that? They claimed it was to save the state lots of money, but that isn’t very likely, since union teachers pay taxes, the people they buy goods and services from pay taxes and taxes are what make government work.

When Republicans took over, the state of Wisconsin spent less than the national average on education, they had a below-average pupil-teacher ratio (which is a good thing), and test scores were well above average. Their graduation rate was a very high 89.6%; well above the national average 71%. Meanwhile, The average public school teacher in Wisconsin made $52,644 per year, according to the NEA; entry-level teachers made around $36,000, and those with 20 years experience or more making as much as $69,000 per year, depending on the district.  That’s decent money, but it doesn’t make them the Koch Brothers; I wonder how many Wisconsin Republicans would handle 20-25 of those kids for upwards of 40-50 hours a week at that rate? Not many, I’m guessing.

Put simply, when Scott Walker, who is now threatening to run for president, and the Republicans took over, the schools were doing what they were supposed to do, and they were doing it extremely well, even though they spent less tax money than most other states. Why would anyone in their right mind change what they were doing?

I know; Republicans aren’t in their right mind. One of their most important memes is that government doesn’t work, and they spend most of their time trying to prove that premise.

But this article is about the value of unions, right? What does any of this have to do with Unions? Everything.

Union workers overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party, and there’s a reason why. Unions actually make life better for everyone, and Republicans hate that. “Right to Work” laws are a joke worthy of the book, “1984;” they’re bad for people and the economy in general. And there is plenty of proof.

A while back, I looked at the educational records of Wisconsin and another heavily unionized state that was roughly equal in population; Maryland. I also chose two “right to work” states that were also comparable in population to Wisconsin and Maryland, so as not to skew the results too much. Those “right-to-work” states were South Carolina and Arizona. You probably already know what I found.

Of the four states, Maryland spent the most on education, and they had the fourth-highest average teacher salary in the country, at just above $65,000. Their graduation rate was 80.4 percent – below Wisconsin’s rate, but well above the national average – and their testing scores were well above average in every category, except eighth-grade science.

On the other hand, in the “right to work” state of Arizona, teachers averaged $46,000 per year; far below the amount Wisconsin teachers made. This, despite the fact that Arizona spends roughly the same as Wisconsin on education. Also, their graduation rate is below even the national average, at 70.1 percent, and they had far lower test scores than Wisconsin in every single category.

But even Arizona isn’t as bad as South Carolina, which spent far less on education than any of the four states I looked at, partly because their “right to work” teachers average just $44,000 per year. The state’s test scores make even lowly Arizona look stellar by comparison, and their graduation rate is fourth-worst in the nation, at 61%.

Now, here’s the question of the ages. Why would Walker and Wisconsin Republicans want to do anything to harm their very highly successful school system? Why would they emulate states like Arizona and South Carolina, and try to kill the teacher’s union that has served the state so well? It’s because they’re Republicans, and teacher’s unions are successful. They foster a better teaching environment, which means it’s easier to recruit and keep good teachers.

Republican union-busting ways go back nearly a century. The “Right to Work” concept was designed primarily to weaken unions, to make them easier to break. The concept works on the stated premise that closed union shops should be illegal, because workers shouldn’t have to be “forced” to accept union membership as a condition of employment.

The word “forced” is a popular word for Republicans. It is always used to describe responsibilities that are imposed upon them by the democratic process. Put simply, Republicans use it to describe a democratic result they don’t like. A labor union is ultimately a democratic system; in a closed union shop, every worker in that company voted to unionize, voted to pay union dues, and voted to close the shop. If a majority want to change their situation, they can. If they want to open the shop and/or toss the union out altogether, they can vote to do so. It’s called democracy, and Republicans prove they don’t like it when they pass laws that essentially allow a minority of workers to weaken workers’ bargaining power in the workplace. While Republicans will claim such a law makes businesses and the overall economy stronger, the reality is otherwise.

Here is a complete list of the 24 states with a “Right to Work” standard: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming. Of these states, 19 are in the bottom half of per-capita personal income figures by state. And since Michigan and Indiana just joined that group within the last few years, the long-term effects of “Right to Work” on those states is unknown. Of the 26 states that are not “Right to work,” only eight are in the bottom half of income figures. Also, check out my blog post showing income and other statistics in Republican states, which you can find right here. People in “Right to Work” states are poorer, they have weaker economies, and they are heavily subsidized by union-friendly states. While Republicans claim that unions are so detrimental to business and the economy, the fact is, actual statistics say otherwise. Taxpayers in pro-union states like New York and California historically keep states like Mississippi and Alabama afloat.

To figure out the best way to run an economy, we need only look at our past. We boomed like no other economy after World War II. For 34 years after the war, our economy grew strong, and we were the envy of the world. Everyone else wanted to be us. Not coincidentally, union membership was triple its current level. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, roughly one-third of non-agricultural workers in this country belonged to a union.

In other words, at the time our economy was experiencing the greatest boom in history, we had the greatest union penetration in history. Based on Republican logic, we shouldn’t have prospered. But not only were most of the largest companies in the US also the largest companies in the world; most of the workers in those companies were unionized. In 1945, union workers made up 35% of the workforce. As late as 1970, the percentage was still over 27%. (Source, Page 22.) If collective bargaining “forces” companies out of business, how did we become an economic superpower then, and why are we stagnating at a time when union membership is 12%? According to Republicans, we should be booming right now.  And by that, I mean booming without a series of bubbles crammed with fake money. And yet, with Republicans in charge, we’ve had bubbles, and no booms.

As a former union worker, I would never say unions are perfect; there are problems, largely brought on by the fact that they’re democratic. However, everyone who works for a living should thank their lucky stars for unions, and stop badmouthing them. The basic 40-hour workweek came courtesy of labor unions. Overtime is paid because of unions. The minimum wage has unions to thank for its existence. If you live in a city or region with a strong union presence, wages are higher than in places with no union presence. One reason most people have health insurance through their employers is because of unions, at least in part. Worker’s Compensation and unemployment insurance exist largely because of unions.

Conversely, many of the worst aspects of our economy are due to the diminished influence of unions. One reason the number of people without health insurance climbed for years is because fewer and fewer employers were offering it, because they had no union shops to compete against. One reason wages have stagnated is because employers no longer have to raise wages to keep workers. If our unions were strong, there would be no abomination like the very concept of “at-will” employment. Face it; without unions, employment is not a level playing field, and puts all workers at a disadvantage.

One reason the economy has been slipping for 40 years is because, thanks to Republicans, workers rarely have rights in the workplace. Many of the jobs that made the economy boom in the first place have been shipped elsewere, so that we can buy a spatula for a buck at low-paying Walmart. If you work for a company that takes in billions of dollars a year, but you’re not making enough to pay the bills, there’s a way out; unionize.  They can afford to pay you a living wage, and provide you with health insurance and a retirement plan. But the only way you will ever get it is to rise up and take the power away from them. We should be encouraging, not discouraging, unionizing. If we’re going to compete in the future, we have to do whatever we can to make ourselves what we once were.

The first step, of course, is to beat Republicans. Always and forever. Okay, maybe not forever. But certainly until they learn to behave.

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One comment

  1. When US workers are attached to giant companies – hotel housekeepers to hotels, auto workers to the Big Three- union representation is essential. However, unions are finding another transitional alternative that is gaining ground, union worker cooperatives. Arising out of a long negotiation, 2000-2012, first the United Steelworkers now other unions have made pact with Mondragon Cooperative Corporation, the Spanish diversified coop that has weathered many a storm in that nation. Worker coops are often small, counter cultural activities that give middle and upper income people alternatives from the predations of capitalist society. But they can be major parts in competition with that society – large scale manufacturing and service operations that challenge the fundamental principles that labor is a commodity, and capital is the driver of society. In worker coops labor is central, and capital is merely an instrument. With labor in charge of not just its own rights but in control over investment decisions, massive change is automatic. Although, like any business, it can fail due to market concerns, labor will be treated with top priority, not just tossed on the dustbin of history. Spanish unemployment is over 25% even now, but unemployment in the Basque region where Mondragon is located is 4%. Worker union coops are beginning across the Northeastern part of the US as a fundamental reworking of deindustrialization and new businesses, worker owned and controlled, rising from the ashes. It’s not the solution for every injustice against labor – unions ARE – but it is the solution for many businesses that can be rolled over to the existing workers or restarted or begun anew. Union worker coops are a significant part of the future if we ever hope to end the outrageous economic inequality and restore the foundational principles of middle class America. For more information and links to key resources, see It’s the dawn of a new strategy that is working and that gives real power to working people. It’s time is now.

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