Union membership in the United States has dipped to its lowest level in 97 years, according to a report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics last week.
In 2012, the union membership rate—the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of a union—was 11.3 percent, down from 11.8 percent in 2011, BLS said.
The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.4 million, also declined over the year. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers.
The data on union membership, collected as part of the Current Population Survey, a monthly sample survey of about 60,000 households that obtains information on employment and unemployment among the nation’s civilian noninstitutional population ages 16 and over, helps explain the growing disparity between the rich and everyone else, that some say is now worse than in Latin America, a region plagued by some of the worst wealth inequality in the world.
The share of Americans who carry union cards has dropped to 6.6 percent of the private-sector workforce. The union presence in America’s private-sector workplaces, two Rutgers economists are now estimating, hasn’t been this low since 1916.
Back in the 1950s, according to “Too Much,” an online weekly publication of the Institute for Policy Studies, 35 percent of America’s private-sector workers held union status. This broad union presence helped institutionalize “norms for fair pay” for all workers, union and nonunion alike. Corporate execs essentially had to share the wealth, at least somewhat, it said.
“Not anymore, not with unions almost nonexistent across large swatches of America’s private sector.” There now exists a level of pay inequity between the top 1 percent and the bottom 90 percent that has reached astounding proportions.
President Barack Obama took note in his inaugural address last week: We “cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.”
The BLS survey also lends statistical credibility to the understanding expressed by some labor economists that a new class of “precarious” workers is forming that keeps wages low as more employers find ways to short-change workers out of full time work and the living wage that bring social safety net benefits and the ability to pay for them.
While Latin America has had high income inequality for a long time, those figures have turned around while in the United States income inequality is on the rise. Adam Isacson, an analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America, notes the change. According to recent figures on income published by the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the U.S. income gap now exceeds that of several countries in the Americas.”
“If you feel the economic recovery hasn’t helped your pocketbook much, it’s not just your imagination. The annual wages of the bottom 90 percent of workers declined by 1.2 percent between 2009 and 2011 when adjusted for inflation, according to a new report from the progressive Economic Policy Institute. At the same time, the top one percent’s wages rose 8.2 percent during the same time period by the same measure.
The richest Americans have benefited the most from the economic recovery so far, as the top one percent captured 93 percent of all income gains during the first full year of the economic recovery (2010), says Emmanuel Saez, an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, in a study.
On top of all this statistical data comes the growing realization by labor economists that a new working class is forming, one in which the members of it don’t understand that they’re in it. Called “precarious” workers by some and the “precariate” by Guy Standing, a labor economist, the profile of the new working class is that of workers who are always looking for their next job, which may not pay as much as their last job, and who seemed resigned to a life where they are always falling short of long-term living wages, and the social welfare benefits that come with them, and have little recourse to escape the advances in 21st century technology, like robots working in spacious warehouse, that make their value less and less by commoditizing labor as global economics kicks in.
The public discourse in America of economic recovery, with its nostalgic sense of hoping to get back to things as they were, is shown by Guy Standing, author of “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class,” that there is no going back to labor as it was known last century. Youth, whose efforts are in theory going to support aging workers in their declining years as well as carry the nation forward into a more competitive future, should take note of Mr. Standing’s vision.
According to Mr. Standing, there are now essentially four classes. First, there is a numerically tiny super-rich elite whose relationship with the rest of humanity appears fleeting at best. Second, there is the ‘salariat’, still maintaining their career privileges of pensions, holidays and other employment benefits. Third, there are the professional technicians, or ‘proficians,’ a new word Standing makes from “professional” and “technicians.” They often work as highly-paid consultants and contractors, but they don’t conform to the traditional 9-to-5, jobs-for-life pattern, but move from job to job, company to company as desired or required. Fourth is the dwindling number of manual workers in the older sense of the term, the former bastions of ‘old labor’.
Then comes the ‘precariat,’ a still-forming class that does not recognize it as a ‘class-for-itself’. The group is growing because it is being pushed by “commodification,” which stems from treating everything, including labor, as a commodity to be bought and sold, subject to market forces, with prices set by demand and supply, without the capacity to resist. According to Mr. Standing, commodification has been extended to every aspect of life.
As the sweeping away of all barriers to marketability has meant that any collective barriers to exploitation have been removed in the name of individual freedom, the result is that in the interests of the market, labor flexibility—the ability to hire and fire at will which is the ultimate commodification of labor—has been “the major direct cause of the growth of the global precariat,” as Mr. Standing sees it.
This “labor flexibility” means that the precariat is increasingly made up of women and older workers, who are cheaper, pushing down the real value of wages. Young people have fewer and fewer opportunities for developing skills and careers, the theory goes, because they are faced with shortages of meaningful employment, forcing them to stay in education. At this time, the process of commodification means not only that education is increasingly expensive but also that the range of courses offered is dictated more by marketing and the need to attract fee paying customers than any desire to develop human potential.
One Ohio labor economist has taken note of the BLS report and Mr. Standing’s theory explaining the modern precarious worker. John Russo, a retired Labor Studies professor who taught in the Business School at Youngstown State University and trained in Labor and Industrial Relations, told CGE in a telephone interview that while the BLS report numbers are what they are, some good news in it was that female union members in some states rose.
“The numbers between union members are not always accurate,” he said, adding that changes in the nature of work is producing more contingent workers. He said no one wants to talk about the new human resource policy changes the reflect corporate decision making. Outsourcing is still big and growing, he said, noting that the “story should be much broader than what’s being reported.” On the upside, he points to the growing Latino population in the western states that are ripe of union representation.
One of his key points to look out for is how companies deal with the Patient Protection and Affordability Act, dubbed Obamacare by Republicans and others opposed to it.
Highlights from the 2012 BLS data:
- Public-sector workers had a union membership rate (35.9 percent) more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.6 percent).
- Workers in education, training, and library occupations and in protective service occupations had the highest unionization rates, at 35.4 and 34.8 percent, respectively.
- Black workers were more likely to be union members than were white, Asian, or Hispanic workers. Among states, New York continued to have the highest union membership rate (23.2 percent), and North Carolina again had the lowest rate (2.9 percent).
In Ohio, Union members represented 12.6 percent of all workers while workers represented by a union has dipped to 13.9 percent.
BLS data refer to the sole or principal job of full- and part-time wage and salary workers. All self-employed workers are excluded, both those with incorporated businesses as well as those with unincorporated businesses.
Watch Guy Standing lecture on “The Precariat.”
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