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By Stephen Herzenberg, Third and State

There's a good deal of crowing in conservative circles this week about the new 2012 numbers on union membership. Union membership nationally fell by about 400,000, to 14.4 million. Union membership in Pennsylvania declined 45,000, including 59,000 in the private sector.

Of course, for anyone who cares about, say, the American Dream, democracy, and rising living standards, the newest numbers are bad news. A simple chart put together by the Center for American Progress shows that unions are vital to the middle class. As unions have weakened, so has the share of income going to middle-income workers — and the gap between the 1% and the 99% has mushroomed.

As this blog has noted, inequality undermines not only economic opportunity, but it also slows economic growth and makes our democracy less responsive to typical families and the public good (and too responsive to rich special interests).

One silver lining in the new numbers is the great variation that exists across states. Unions are growing in some places. Another silver lining is that the weaker unions get, the more evidence we get that this is a bad thing. Evidence such as the fact that the top 1% of the population took home 93% of the increase in income in the United States in the last year for which we have data. And evidence such as the skills shortage in U.S. manufacturing: surprise, surprise, if you pay workers poorly and don't invest in them, you can't attract and retain the factory talent you need.

Fifteen years ago, we outlined why America needs "new unions for a new economy" — and noted that we couldn't see how to restore widely shared prosperity without a revival of unionism. The evidence for our position grows with each day.

But beneath the overall numbers, even in Pennsylvania and even in manufacturing, there are signs of revival. Take, for example, a unionized Schott Glass plant near Scranton, which is pioneering a new labor-management apprenticeship program.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of unions' death are greatly exaggerated.

Originally posted to ThirdandState on Fri Jan 25, 2013 at 01:50 PM PST.

Also republished by In Support of Labor and Unions.

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Comment Preferences

  •  This Is Something I've Never Understood (5+ / 0-)

    I was raised in a very Republican household. I was taught you never fuck with unions. Unions are important and should be respected. You never, ever cross a picket line. NEVER.

    I don't even know why this is a political issue.

    When opportunity calls pick up the phone and give it directions to your house.

    by webranding on Fri Jan 25, 2013 at 02:03:28 PM PST

  •  The numbers are not good... (4+ / 0-)

    but I wonder what the breakdown looks like. State governments have been shedding employees in huge numbers, some of them surely were union members. I agree that all is not lost, though. SEIU Healthcare in PA is making a big push to organize the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) - I'm on the organizing committee :) We have a huge NLRB complaint with the hearing (finally!) starting on 2/4/13. When the ruling goes with us, look for some good news about increased Union membership in the hopefully not to distant future. Lots of work remains to be done, but we're a persistent bunch with a ton of community and political support, and UPMC is getting a ton of bad press lately.

  •  The numbers are darned awful (7+ / 0-)

    Even is what used to be one of our strong areas, the construction trades, the national figure is 12.5% organized.  Sixty yeas ago when I was born,  it was 90%.  In the 80s when I got active, it was still over 50%, The building trades have been fighting hard the last 40 years, and still lost a lot of ground.

    I'm starting to get kinda bitter we never got card check when the D's held majorities in both houses.  That still may not have given us a lock on passage but I'd have like to seen an effort.

    Also we shoulda got labor law reform and the picketing law in the 1970s, and .....

    I'm lapsing into war stories, aren't I?

    Well, see how long the Democrats last with a neutered labor movement.

    Orly, it isn't evidence just because you downloaded it from the internet.

    by 6412093 on Fri Jan 25, 2013 at 03:09:44 PM PST

    •  "We never got card check" (0+ / 0-)

      Exactly. that one, like several other progressive initiatives (didn't Obama campaign on raising the min wage during his first election campaign?) fell off the radar like the proverbial lead balloon.

      thus it's more than ironic that a front page diary this morning has "our center left nation" in the title.

      Well, see how long the Democrats last with a neutered labor movement.
      There's that aspect, but the larger aspect for me is let's see how long our nation survives economically with the massive wealthy inequity we have, the lack of economic opportunity-- due to the downward spiral we are in the middle of; a spiral made worse by the "austerity doctrine".

      The jury is already in on the austerity doctrine in Great Britain. it's a massive fail.

      and Greece? a pall of wood smoke lays over Athens like a carpet, from people burning their furniture, trees they illegally chop down, even books in an effort to keep warm.

      "A civilization which does not provide young people with a way to earn a living is pretty poor". Eleanor Roosevelt

      by Superpole on Sat Jan 26, 2013 at 06:29:42 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Correct, the "Death" of unions has been (0+ / 0-)

    somewhat exaggerated; should be written as: the power/influence of unions, particularly political power, is definitely on the ropes. this has been the precise goal of the wealthy class ever since labor unions came into being.

    some will argue "but Obama just got plenty of union support in the recent election!" granted, but that's at the national level. we know it's a totally different story at the state level, where anti-union, pro work to right (for less) advocates like Walker in WI and Snyder in MI, states that were central to union creation and power-- managed to get elected governor. and they astonishingly had union voter support in the 2010 elections.

    It's hard to not see the gradual erosion of union power over the last 30-40 years. part of this is simple attrition due to increased productivity resulting from the use of robotics and other technological advances-- there are significantly less people working in factories now compared to the 1960's ahd 70's.

    Then there's further proof of anti-union sentiment with the "progressive" backlash here and elsewhere in Bloggo world, regarding the Chicago teacher's strike last year. Statements like "teacher's don't need unions" and "teacher's don't deserve the pay they get" were more than astonishing to me.

    I'm afraid the glory days of labor unions are behind us.

    "A civilization which does not provide young people with a way to earn a living is pretty poor". Eleanor Roosevelt

    by Superpole on Sat Jan 26, 2013 at 06:12:34 AM PST

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