But for those feeling despondent about the decline of unions, and its terrible consequences for American workers and the economy, there are real reasons to be hopeful. Here are five good reasons for optimism:
First, most Americans hold favorable views of unions. According to a June 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center, 51 percent of Americans hold favorable views of labor unions, a 10 percent increase from the number in the same poll conducted two years earlier. This is first time since January 2007 that a majority of the public has viewed unions favorably. 80 percent of “liberal Democrats” hold favorable views on unions. Women, minorities and youth – key groups for organized labor -- hold the most pro-union attitudes. There is no straightforward relationship between public approval for unions and union growth, but the labor movement must figure out how to bring into its fold the majority of Americans who like unions.
Second, bucking national trends, union membership in California increased by a whopping 110,000 members in 2012, even as it fell by 368,000 nationwide. Much of the increase in California, which has the nation’s largest number of union members, was among healthcare workers and Latino workers. In several other states with growing Latino populations, membership grew more modestly, but these states may soon follow California’s lead.
Fourth, after years of Republican obstructionism, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has a full compliment of five members for the first time under the Obama administration. The NLRB election system provides weak protection for workers’ right to organize, and its influence has been severely constrained by the courts, but it remains an important bulwark against recalcitrant employers who violate workers’ fundamental rights.
Finally, as demonstrated by next week’s “open convention,” the AFL-CIO and its affiliates are more flexible, imaginative, and inclusive than ever before. They have embraced the struggles of domestic workers, carwash workers, Wal-Mart workers, fast food workers and others. They have formed deep alliances with the NAACP, National Council of La Raza, Sierra Club, religious organizations, and other groups that support basic justice for American workers. And they have played a key role in lobbying for federal legislation that benefits all workers – healthcare reform, equal pay legislation, immigration reform, an increase in the minimum wage and paid sick leave.
Unions still face tremendous obstacles, not least of which is a Republican Party that has waged all-out war on workers’ rights at the state and federal levels. Union decline has had a terrible impact on American workers – who have experienced decades of stagnating wages and disappearing health and pension benefits -- and the American economy, which still depends heavily on consumer spending. Responding to sluggish sales figures last month, Wal-Mart’s chief financial officer explained that American workers simply do not have enough money to spend on the company’s merchandise. Wal-Mart’s 1.4 million domestic retail employees, who make an average of $8.81 per hour, would no doubt agree with him.
But the overall picture for unions is far from hopeless. For anyone open-minded enough to take notice, the AFL-CIO’s convention in L.A. will demonstrate that the labor movement still has much life left in it, which is good news for American workers and the U.S. economy.
Logan is a professor and the director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University.