Dear unions: We need you back – the case for a renaissance of American unions

Getty Images

Unions – the collectivization of common laborers in an attempt to increase their leverage over the capitalists (i.e. shareholders, equity partners) – have been a dying entity for decades now. Free marketers have hailed this as a success as it allows the market to determine wages, which, in theory, makes the economy more efficient at distributing wealth.  Certainly to some extent the philosophy of the free market is correct. By stifling union membership amongst laborers, corporations manage to suppress wages by forcing individuals to compete in a wage version of a “race-to-the-bottom”, particularly for low-skill jobs primarily in the service and manufacturing industries. This in turn allows for higher profits, which increases dividends, which makes stock more attractive, which makes stockholders wealthier. The theory, however, falls apart when the assumption that all participants in the market are also shareholders is not realized. Many laborers have a 401(k) that is tied into the stock market, often in ways that they do not fully comprehend. However, many laborers, again particularly in the service and industrial economies, do not have 401(k)s. They own no stock, they receive no dividends, and they certainly are not getting any richer even as their productivity skyrockets.

Furthermore, the collectivization of capitalists (read: mergers and acquisitions) lowers intra-industry competition, eliminates duplicative laborers, eliminates duplicative processes, and makes the job market less fluid all without sacrificing productivity. As fewer jobs circulate the market and production continues to rise – a reality that coincidentally destroys a key assumption regarding the manner of growth that many of the classical philosophers of capitalism espouse – a significant shift in power tilts in favor of the capitalists. As a growing labor market is met with a shrinking demand for labor, wages are driven down as laborers compete for fewer opportunities. The individual pain felt by the laborer is offset in a macro-economic sense for the increased profits of companies. As President Obama has declared on multiple occasions, the economy is recovering strongly. And he is not wrong, the economy has recovered – but that vast majority of the wealth created has been concentrated in the accounts of capitalists as they continue to increase productivity while simultaneously lowering labor needs through both brilliant ingenuity on assembly lines and through the concentration of industry power in massive multi-billion dollar mergers and acquisitions. Anti-unionization is good for the overall economy; however, without moral capitalism, the profits and privileges of this 21st century economy are not even remotely being distributed equitably.

{mosads}This is why unions are important. Unions allow workers to speak as one collective rather than as single individuals. The President of a manufacturing plant or the CEO of Nordstrom is not fearful of a single laborer walking off the job in protest of unfair wages. Sure, it might disrupt operations for a day or two, but with an employer-friendly job market (again, specifically in the service sector and low-skill labor jobs) it is by no means difficult to find a replacement. However, if an entire shift walks off the assembly line or the cooking line or the sales line, the shareholders are forced to take heed of their employee’s complaints. The ransom of a hostage profit is what allows unions to get to the negotiation table and lobby for higher wages for their members which in turn leads to a rising prosperity for all – laborers and shareholders both.

One would suspect that in a time where wealth inequality has been center stage during political debates and the voting constituency is engaged in a manner not seen in decades – in large part thanks to the populist, pro-labor messages of Mr. Trump and Sen. Sanders – that unionization would be on the forefront of politician’s, journalist’s, and expert’s minds. Yet there appears to be very little commentary of the deunionization pandemic plaguing America. And what coverage there is trends towards casting union bosses as “out of touch” with the average worker – and in many cases this is true and many mega-unions are in need of a major internal overhaul, but today I am only arguing the case for the importance of unions in an utopian sense of the entity.

For the sake of context, let me present some staggering numbers for you. In 1964, Virginia had a 15.8% union membership – in 2014 the Commonwealth only had a 4.9% rate of membership. In the same years, California decreased from 33% to 16.6%, New York declined from 35.5% to 24.6% (which is the highest rate in the United States in 2014, versus in 1964 when the highest rate was in Washington at 44.5% – just for more context of the overall picture). In 1964, South Carolina had the lowest union membership at 7% (and it was typically lower across the southern states). In 2014, South Carolina’s northern counterpart North Carolina has the honors of lowest union rate in America with a 2% rate.

It should come as no surprise to anyone then that wages have been stagnant over the past few decades. First, fewer collectives of laborers exist to bargain against shareholders for higher wages versus higher corporate profit. Second, strikes are becoming less commonplace and are often covered by the media poorly or in a negative light. Third, employees have become culturally sensitive to sharing personal income levels with their peers, thus making it more difficult for peer-to-peer evaluation of wages and results in the inevitable underpayment of a certain laborers according to actual market value. Whenever there is dissymmetry of information, whichever party has access to more information holds an upper hand over the less-informed party. Fourth, the increasing affordability of international trade and travel – in part thanks to lower energy costs and greater economies of scale due to the collectivization of corporations and shareholders – has taken globalization into hyper drive, resulting in American workers having to compete with workers all across the globe for labor intensive industries such as manufacturing. And fifth, the world is undergoing a seismic shift in the actual style of work not seen since the Industrial Revolution. All of these elements, and a myriad of others, are driving down wages for the American worker and creating a Darwinian culture of work and labor in America. The American laborer needs a union to counterbalance the asymmetrical weight of power.

For the sake of a resurgent middle class, I hope that perhaps Mr. Trump or Secretary Clinton will catalyze the recanonization of the American union in public discourse, and I hope that this current culture changes and the American laborer rises from this slumber and takes back their seat at the table.

Mercer May is a J.D. Candidate at the University of Richmond and has worked in numerous public policy and legislative rolls – including the Virginia House of Delegates, the Senate of Virginia, and the Office of the Attorney General of Virginia. He holds a B.A. in Political Science, a B.A. in Religious Studies, and a minor in Economics from Virginia Commonwealth University.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

More Labor News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video