Union density up, but why and how long?

Highlights for March 5th

Recently released figures for 2017 from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reveal a reversal in the decades-long decline in unionization rates. For those who have watched with chagrin the downward slope of union density, this appears to be a welcome bright spot. But not so soon, cautions Glenn Perusek in an essay for New Labor Forum. After all, the uptick is a small one, he notes, and perhaps better explained by new hiring in already unionized workplaces, than by massive new union organizing. The data does show an increase in young workers represented by unions, as well as new gains in unionization in white collar fields, including journalism and academia. NLF Consulting Editor and CUNY Sociology Professor Ruth Milkman makes sense of these trends in a WNYC interview with Todd Zwillich, included here.

Anyone concerned about organized labor’s prospects has noticed the dark cloud on the horizon in the form of the Janus v. AFSCME case, currently pending before the Supreme Court. This case threatens a body blow to public sector unionism if, as expected, it manages to abolish the mandatory “agency fees” that workers who don’t join the union currently pay to the unions that must represent them and negotiate their contracts, regardless. In his forthcoming NLF column, Organized Money: What Is Corporate America Thinking?, Max Fraser devotes his attention to the big money interests that instigated the Janus case, and presently stand poised with sophisticated campaigns to convert public sector workers into “free riders” through opting out of union membership and associated dues. The right-wing foundations that have long pushed to weaken public sector unions by overturning the “agency fee” may, however, find they’ve gotten more than they’ve bargained for. So argues NLF regular Shaun Richman in a recent piece for The Washington Post. He suggests that the deal that brought about the “agency fee,” also contributed to labor peace, in the form of no-strike clauses and exclusive representation. In the post-Janus labor chaos Richman predicts unionists may find new possibilities for militant action, while conservatives may rue the day they brought it about.

Table of Contents

1. U.S. Union Membership Data in Perspective/ Glenn Perusek, New Labor Forum
2. How Unions Fracture Along Economic Lines/ Todd Zwillich with Ruth Milkman, The Takeaway, WNYC, Feb 1, 2018
3. Organized Money: What is Corporate America Thinking?-Freedom’s Janus Face/Max Fraser, New Labor Forum
4. If the Supreme Court rules against unions, conservatives won’t like what happens next/ Shaun Richman, The Washington Post, Mar 1, 2018

U.S. Union Membership Data in Perspective

By Glenn Perusek/ New Labor Forum

Every January, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publishes union membership figures for the United States. For many decades now, these annual reports have provided a numerical profile of organized labor’s decline. Yet the recent BLS report for 2017 shows a different picture, indicating a rise in unionization, including among young workers. The report is being interpreted by many as a reflection of significant new organizing. While increased membership figures and density are important, because they are rough measures of workers’ power in an industry or the economy as a whole, I would suggest that we refrain from viewing the uptick in union membership in 2017 as a sign of…

Read the full article here.

How Unions Fracture Along Economic Lines

Todd Zwillich with Ruth Milkman/ The Takeaway, WNYC, Feb 1, 2018

In 1983, just over 20 percent of American workers belonged to a union. Now, 35 years later, that number has been cut in half to just about 10 percent. But there are new signs of life for unions.Just in the past two weeks, employees at Slate, Vox, and The Los Angeles Times have all voted to unionize. Those votes follow a trend of workplaces in journalism and at universities successfully organizing in the past few years. In total, white collar fields like entertainment, law, and journalism have seen increases in union workers, up about four percent since 2010, as reported in a recent piece in The Atlantic. But things are playing out differently in lower wage industries, like production and manufacturing, where the percentage of union workers has fallen by about three percent since 2010.

Listen to the full interview here.

Organized Money: What is Corporate America Thinking?-Freedom’s Janus Face

by Max Fraser/ New Labor Forum

The last few years have been particularly trying ones for organized labor. A half-dozen states have passed right-to-work laws since 2012, including traditional bastions of union strength in the Upper Midwest like Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Meanwhile, the John Roberts-led conservative majority on the Supreme Court has issued a steady drip of anti-union decisions, which have emboldened labor’s enemies and equipped them with a host of new weapons in their union-busting arsenal. And with the Court likely to issue a decision in the closely watched Janus v. AFSCME case sometime in late spring or early summer, the pro-business forces…

Read the full article here.

If the Supreme Court rules against unions, conservatives won’t like what happens next

by Shaun Richman/ The Washington Post, March 1, 2018

On Monday, the Supreme Court heard the case Janus vs. AFSCME, with the fate of the labor movement seemingly in the balance. At stake are agency fees — public sector unions can collect fees for service from employees who don’t join the union that represents them, which the plaintiff argues is an unconstitutional act of compelled speech. The deep-pocketed backers of Janus aim to bankrupt unions and strip them of whatever power they still have, but if the court rules that an interaction a union has with the government is political speech, they might not be so happy with the results…

Read the full article here.

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