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Counterpoint: 2023 Won’t Mark a Union Revival, and That’s Good News

For an alternate viewpoint, see “Point: The ‘Year of the Strike’ Could Be a Turning Point for the Labor Movement.”

There’s no denying that unions notched impressive victories this year, including substantial increases in compensation for auto workers, actors, screenwriters, airline pilots and delivery drivers. Regarding work days lost, union strikes in 2023 were the largest in 40 years — big enough to affect the overall job market.

But it would be premature to declare a resurgence of the U.S. labor movement or to argue that most workers would have benefitted from one.

The historical trendline is unmistakable: In 2022, one in 10 U.S. workers belonged to a union, down from one in seven in 1996 and one in five in 1983, when the first comparable data were collected. The decline of union membership has been remarkably steady over the last four decades. Since 2000, the year-to-year change in the unionization rate has been positive only six times, and those small gains have quickly been reversed.

Moreover, the latest data show that unionization is increasingly concentrated in the government sector, especially local services like K-12 education and public safety. Only 6 percent of private-sector workers are union members.

Another sign that unions are a waning force in the labor market is that the union wage premium (i.e., how much more union members are paid than similar workers who aren’t represented by a union) has fallen sharply. Over the last decade-and-a-half, the union wage premium in the private sector has been slashed in half from about 25 percent to 12.5 percent — evidence that unions don’t exert the kind of influence at the bargaining table that they used to.

The erosion of union power is rooted not in Big Business union-busting but in broader economic forces: globalization, technological change (including automation), shifts in industrial composition, and the rise of the gig economy. Those trends aren’t likely to reverse themselves any time soon.

Whether you celebrate or mourn the decline of organized labor, remember two things. First, workers have a right to organize and advocate for themselves. This leads me to the second point: Unions like to position themselves as promoting the interests of all workers, but their priority is mostly their own members. Sometimes, that comes at the expense of other workers.

For example, although higher wages for union workers are nothing to scoff at, they should be weighed against their not-so-obvious effects on the economy. By keeping pay above competitive market levels, unions reduce the number of workers unionized companies are willing to hire, making it harder for outsiders to find a job. States with policies that favor unions consistently experience slower employment growth and higher unemployment rates than other states, even after controlling for a host of other factors.

Moreover, unions generally advocate for seniority-based pay and benefits, which makes it harder to reward effective young workers. Unions often block employers from adopting the most efficient production methods, undermining companies’ profitability and, in some cases, driving them out of business.

Rigid work rules imposed by unions can degrade organizational culture. One study surveyed thousands of American workers and found that those in unionized companies reported “reduced empowerment, less effective teamwork and less support for career development and advancement within the company.”

These things trickle down to consumers. Researchers have documented, for example, that product recalls are significantly more common at unionized workplaces than non-unionized ones, possibly because higher wages crowd out investments in technology upgrades that would improve product quality.

Although unions tout fairness in the workplace, my colleague and I have found a connection between strong union protections and hiring discrimination. States that give unions more power to recruit members and raise funds have 30 percent higher rates of hiring discrimination against older women compared to other states. These findings suggest that high union pay encourages employers to reject job applicants they might view as less productive.

This doesn’t mean unions need to be demonized for organizing out of self-interest, but it does mean more states should reconsider tipping the scales in unions’ favor. It also means most workers shouldn’t worry about unions’ weakening grip on the labor market.

Point: The ‘Year of the Strike’ Could Be a Turning Point for the Labor Movement

For an alternate viewpoint, see “Counterpoint: 2023 Won’t Mark a Union Revival, and That’s Good News.”

Picket lines captured headlines in 2023 like no year in recent memory.

In October, U.S. companies lost more workdays to strikes than in any month during the last 40 years. More than half a million American workers left the job this year — and many wound up winning significant concessions.

Big Three auto workers, Hollywood writers and actors, Las Vegas and Los Angeles hotel staff, and Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers will enter the new year with greater economic security, thanks to bargaining table wins. For UPS drivers, the mere threat of a Teamsters strike was enough to secure historic wage hikes and safety protections.

Many New Year’s toasts will celebrate these achievements, and for good reason. Corporate CEOs have gorged on ever more massive paychecks for decades while leaving their workers with crumbs.

But the strikers of 2023 are part of the tiny unionized share of the private sector labor force — which fell to a record low of 6 percent in 2022. If the labor movement can’t make greater inroads in challenging organizing environments, corporations will always have enormous power to pit union and non-union workers against each other in a race to the bottom in wages and benefits.

This point is not lost on unions that scored two of the most significant victories in 2023: the UAW and the Teamsters.

After the UPS win, the Teamsters doubled down on Amazon, picketing outside 25 of the union-busting behemoth’s warehouses. A key demand: a fair contract for unionized drivers for one California-based Amazon delivery service.

UAW leaders — after securing a 25 percent pay hike for their GM, Ford and Stellantis members — sent a message to unorganized auto workers at other companies, urging them to join the union bandwagon.

Top executives at Nissan, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai were also listening. In an apparent attempt to fend off organizing drives, they immediately raised wages for their non-unionized U.S. employees.

These four firms have been part of an investment boom in southern states notorious for anti-union laws and politicians. Expanding worker power in this tough territory will be crucial for the labor movement’s future. In 2023, unions proved it can be done, winning elections at a Blue Bird bus factory in Georgia and AT&T Mobility hubs in Alabama.

The past year also saw union progress in another tough territory: tech. This December, Microsoft signed an agreement to remain neutral in organizing drives among their U.S.-based workers. This will make it easier for 100,000 Microsoft workers to unionize, with potential ripple effects across the industry.

These encouraging signs aside, labor laws still stack the deck in favor of bosses. Just look at the fact that Starbucks and Amazon have been able to get away with refusing to negotiate with workers who voted to unionize well more than a year ago.

Efforts in Congress to strengthen union rights are dead for now, with only two Republicans endorsing the Democrats’ Protecting the Right to Organize Act. On the other hand, President Biden is supporting unions in several ways — and could do more.

In September, Biden became the first American president to join a union picket line. Beyond showing moral support, the White House is using the power of the public purse to boost worker power.

Federal construction contractors now must negotiate project-specific collective bargaining agreements with workers. Biden should require the same of all corporations that get taxpayer-funded contracts and subsidies.

The White House should also demand that all corporations receiving public funds commit to union neutrality and have reasonable gaps between CEO and worker pay. This could make a huge difference since federal contractors employ 25 percent of U.S. workers — and they include Amazon and other corporations known for union-busting and overpaid CEOs.

We might dub this the “year of the strike.” But let’s hope we’ll someday look back at 2023 as more than that — as the year a re-energized movement began reversing its downward slide so that all American workers can get a fair reward for their labor.