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  • Unionization And Working Poverty

    Written on January 28, 2014

    Our guest author today is Ian Robinson, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and in the Residential College’s interdisciplinary Social Theory and Practice program at the University of Michigan.

    Poverty is (by definition) a function of inadequate income relative to family or household size. Low income has two possible proximate causes: insufficient hours of employment and/or insufficient hourly wages.  In 2001, there were four times more poor U.S. households in which someone had a job than there were in households in which no one did.  The same is still true today.  In other words, despite levels of unemployment far above post-World War Two norms, low wage jobs are by far the most important proximate cause of poverty in America today.

    Perversely, despite this reality, the academic literature on U.S. poverty pays less attention to such jobs than it does to unemployment. A recent article, published in the journal American Sociological Review, both identifies and makes up for that shortcoming. In the process, its authors arrive at some striking conclusions. In particular, they find that unions are a major force for reducing poverty rates among households with at least one employed person.

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  • The ‘Snob’ Debate: Making High School Matter For Non-College-Bound Students

    Written on March 7, 2012

    Our guest author today is James R. Stone, professor and director of the National Research Center for Career & Technical Education at the University of Louisville.

    The current debate about “college for all” centers on a recent speech made by President Obama in Troy, MI, in which he argued that all young people should get at least some post-high school education or training. Republican presidential primary candidate Rick Santorum, in a misreading of Obama’s remarks, responded with a focus on four-year degrees alone—suggesting, among other things, that four-year college degrees are overrated and that the president’s emphasis on college devalued working people without such degrees. The political chatter around this particular back-and-forth continues, but the issue of “college for all” has rightly raised some serious issues about the content and direction of U.S. education policy both at the high school and post-secondary levels.

    Statistics seem to show that the college-educated  graduates of four-year institutions earn more money and experience less unemployment than their non-college-educated peers. This has fueled the argument is that college is the surest path—perhaps the only path—into the middle class. But the argument confuses correlation with causality. What if every U.S. citizen obtained a community college or university degree? Would that really do anything to alter wage rates at Starbucks, or increase salaries for home healthcare aides (an occupation projected to enjoy the highest demand over the next decade)? Of course not.

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  • Big Labor?

    Written on August 3, 2011

    As you may know, Congressional Republicans have stalled legislation to reauthorize the operation of Federal Aviation Administration, partially closing down the agency since July 25 at the cost to the U.S. government of $30 million a day in lost tax revenue. This state of affairs will continue at least until Congress resumes in September. What you may not know is that the source of the dispute is whether airline and railroad workers in the  private sector should have the right to organize unions by winning a simple majority of votes (the way elections are conducted in every other public- and private-sector union election). Republicans are against this, and are instead insisting that unionization should require a majority of all possible votes within the unit, irrespective of turnout.

    For me, at least, this was objectionable in and of itself, but it's always a little odd to hear the rhetoric used by some Republicans in these types of situations, specifically when they are reported to see themselves fighting off an advance by "big labor" in the private sector.

    Big labor. The pejorative is beginning to carry the ring of someone living in a time warp. What do I mean?

    Most people know that union membership in the U.S. has declined over the past few decades, but it seems that many aren’t aware of the extent and breakdown of this trend. So here are the basic data on union membership over time.

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  • As Membership Has Declined, Have Attitudes Toward Unions Changed Too?

    Written on May 26, 2011

    The sharp decline in U.S. union membership over the past 30-40 years is well known, but does it reflect a change in attitudes towards organized labor? In other words, is decreasing union membership accompanied by decreasing support for labor?

    Of course, if attitudes have in fact changed, they might be both exogenous (membership declines because support decreases, leading to fewer unionization drives and less political support) as well as endogenous (support decreases because membership declines, as fewer people are exposed to unions and to the benefits of membership) to unionization levels. And, to some degree, attitudes and membership likely change independent of each other.

    In any case, it’s worth taking a look at how attitudes towards labor have changed over the past few decades. In the graph below, I present simple trend data from the General Social Survey (GSS), which has been administered either annually or semi-annually since 1972. Every year, the GSS queries respondents’ confidence in a number of major societal institutions, including organized labor. Granted, there is a difference between having confidence in unions and supporting them per se, but I think it’s safe to assume that the former is a decent indicator of the latter.

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  • Public Employee Unions And Voter Turnout

    Written on May 10, 2011

    During the recent debates over public employees’ collective bargaining rights, especially around the Wisconsin protests, I heard a few people argue that Republican governors are intent on destroying public sector unions, at least in part, because union members are more likely to vote – and to vote Democratic.

    The latter argument (union members are more likely to vote Democratic) is generally true (also here) – although the union "effect" on candidate/party choice is of course complicated. The former argument (more likely to vote in general) is also valid, but there is some underlying public/private variation that is both interesting and important.

    As is almost always the case, isolating the effect of a given factor (in this case, how being a union member affects the likelihood of voting) requires one to compare how this factor “operates” on people who are otherwise similar. For example, in a previous post, I compared public and private sector workers’ earnings. In order to uncover the “effect” of public sector employment on earnings, I used models that controlled for other relevant, measurable factors, such as education and experience. In doing so, I was able to (imperfectly) ensure that I was comparing public and private employees who were similar in terms of skills and qualifications.

    The same basic concept applies to voting.

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  • Unions And Pensions: Unfunded Culpability

    Written on May 4, 2011

    The Pew Center on the States just released an updated report on unfunded liabilities of state pension (and retiree health) systems. The figures are sobering. In FY 2009, state pension plans were funded at an average of 79 percent, meaning that they were short about one dollar for every five that projections suggest they’ll need to meet their obligations.

    While there’s no doubt about the troublesome implications of these findings, there’s a lot of disagreement as to causes. Lately, governors and state legislators (of both parties, but mostly Republicans), as well as dozens of commentators, have tried to lay the blame on the public sector workers, to whom the pensions are owed – seeking to restrict these workers’ collective bargaining rights, with the claim that this will help control the cost of benefits.

    The unfairness of blaming public sector workers – and their unions – should be pretty clear. By all accounts (also here), the primary reason that pension plans are in trouble is that the 2008 collapse of financial markets decimated the value of pension fund investments (the early 2000’s recession also seems to have played a role). Add to that an aging population (there is an increasing percentage of retirees as a share of the population, and they are living longer), as well as the failure of many states to make their required contributions during good times, and you have a fairly comprehensive explanation for the pension "crisis."

    Nevertheless, some have argued that public employee collective bargaining has exacerbated states’ pension problems – after all, more than their non-union counterparts, union members have tended to trade current salaries in favor of increases in deferred benefits. In that case, we might expect that states with higher densities in public sector union membership will have larger unfunded pension obligations. These differences need not be huge, but it’s reasonable to anticipate that they would be discernible. Let’s take a look.

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  • Are Public Employee Unions To Blame For States' Budget Crises?

    Written on February 9, 2011

    A disturbing number of people are blaming public sector unions for states’ current budget crises (also here, here and here). Their basic argument is that unions have seriously exacerbated budget shortfalls because a significant proportion of state spending is tied up in employee compensation, and unions, via collective bargaining, increase salaries and benefits.  As a result, so the line goes, unions have created unsustainable expenses for state governments in a time of declining or still-recovering revenues.

    Needless to say, the relationship between unions and state revenue/spending is complex.  The claim that unions are responsible for state budget gaps (or at least for larger gaps) is therefore extremely difficult to examine, especially during a fiscal crisis. Nevertheless, we can take a quick, modestly rigorous look. 

    There are 30 states that provide collective bargaining rights for state employees, virtually all of them via state laws. One way to evaluate the merit of the accusations above is to see whether states that allow collective bargaining have more severe budget problems than those that do not.

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  • Do Americans Think Unions Help Everyone?

    Written on August 4, 2010

    The question in the headline is fundamental when trying to understand attitudes towards organized labor, as well as the relatively low union presence in the U.S. The "if I can't have it, nobody can" attitude that anti-labor advocates try to promote among non-members packs far less punch if people understand that many of the conditions they take for granted - trivial things like sick days, minimum wages, and yes, weekends - are in no small part thanks to past and current efforts of the U.S. labor movement. Awareness of these efforts, and of the positive union effect on everyone's wages and benefits, is also, no doubt, partially dependent on one's experience with unions (e.g., coming from a "union family").

    So, it might be instructive to take a quick look at attitudes towards labor's effects in the U.S. compared with those in other nations, and whether this appears to be related to the degree of unionization. Basically - do Americans think unions help all workers, and how do our attitudes stack up against other nations?

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