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Why we need our unions

You know if New York City is struggling to defend its unions, that unions must be in trouble. If there is an iconic city for American workers and American unions, it has to be the Big Apple. There, unions could famously push their weight around. They could demand to be courted with promises from every politician running for anything. Yet there too, it appears the unions are fighting a losing battle.

At one point in the not so distant past, a very large percent of the American labor force was unionized. Though never quite as union-friendly as some of the more liberal countries in Europe, America from the ‘50s through the ‘70s still had a significant amount of its labor organized by unions. In fact, for much of that time, about a third of all workers were in unions. Even as late as 1983, when the Bureau of Labor began recording regular statistics, about 20% of the workforce was still unionized.

Now, it is only 10%.

It doesn’t take a genius to know that unions are dying in America. The question is, why?

After all, even today, with the unions weaker and weaker, and politicians dedicated to destroying them (more on that in a moment), union workers still earn more than the average nonunion employee. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union workers make about $1,004 in an average week, whereas nonunion workers make just $802. Even factoring in the highest possible union dues, that is a massive income differential.

Looking beyond the United States, the case is even clearer. Union workers in France and Germany enjoy high wages and a great deal of job security. Where unions are welcome, those in the unions thrive.

In America, unions are not welcome. There has been a war on unions for decades. Politicians and business leaders are famously anti-union, and it has been through regular, focused efforts that union protections have been stripped on the national and state level.

Beyond that, there’s been the loss of jobs where unions were once strongest. Industrial jobs have moved overseas, and the jobs that have replaced them, like service-oriented jobs, are traditionally anti-union. Many such places make it a firing offense to try to organize workers on any level.

To give businesspeople and politicians their fair say, there’s something to the point that unions can, when given too much free rein, harm the economy. France regularly struggles with strikes over the littlest incidents, and the country’s new president is working on pushing back some laws that are a little too worker-friendly. It’s an old stereotype, but it isn’t entirely untrue, that once you’re hired on somewhere in France, you simply can’t be fired.

That being said, though, American workers should feel aggrieved that their unions have been taken from them. With low wages and massive income disparity, now is exactly when we could use strong unions working for us.

No matter where you live in America, however, whether New York City or rural Alabama, the union is a dying animal. It’s been hurt fatally. It’s just taking its time to die.