The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Commentary February 15, 2008

Organized Labor Still an Important Political Player

For the first time in a generation, American labor unions increased their share of membership among workers.  Last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were 311,000 more union members in 2007, the largest increase since 1983. This reversal is a critical development since a strong labor movement is essential for making a more just society and an important component of a winning progressive coalition. By offering workers a voice inside and outside of the workplace, labor unions benefits members and non-members alike. 

Despite American labor’s long post-World War II decline, the direct economic benefits of unionization are still considerable. According to the Economic Policy Institute unionized workers are paid 20 percent more than non-union workers. When non-cash benefits like health insurance are included union workers enjoy a 28 percent advantage in total compensation over their non-union members. Union workers are more likely than employees who are not in unions to have paid leave and pension plans.  Labor unions also raise standards across the board: The average non-union worker in an industry with 25 percent union density was paid 7.5 percent more because of a strong union presence.  At a time when corporate profits are reaching record highs while the share of the national income going to wages and salaries has reached record lows, labor unions are an essential corrective to an increasingly unequal economy.

In addition to the job unions do in the workplace, organized labor has been a major advocate of progressive change in the political arena.  Unions have been behind important legislative and regulatory reforms from the minimum wage to the Family and Medical Leave Act which guarantees workers job-protected unpaid leave to care for a new child, a sick family member or their own illness.  Today, America’s largest labor federation, the

AFL-CIO, continues to push for universal health insurance, comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented workers and improved public education.  More locally, the Ohio AFL-CIO, along with many religious and community groups, is campaigning on behalf of a ballot item for the 2008 election to guarantee sick days to all of Ohio’s workers.

Aside from lobbying on behalf of progressive causes, organized labor provides an important base of popular support for progressives. Exit polls from the 2004 election indicate that union members supported John Kerry over George W. Bush by a margin of 61 percent to 38 percent. Members of union households were also more likely to show up to the polls with 24 percent of the electorate reporting that they were in a union home even though unionized workers comprise about 12 percent of the workforce.  After elections where the presidency and control of Congress have hinged on a few thousands votes in key states, the importance of such an involved constituency cannot be overstated.

For these reasons it is vital that the next Democratic administration do all that it can to strengthen a key progressive ally and sustain the recent increase in unionization.  Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have pledged to support the Employee Free Choice Act which would let employees vote to unionize their worksites simply by signing a card and increase penalties for employers that interfere with their employees’ right to organize.  Congress’ own nonpartisan think tank, the Congressional Research Service, reports the EFCA would improve the success rate of union organizing campaigns and make unions more likely to try to organize new workers.  Given the role that unions play in our economy and our politics, reforming our labor laws should be a top priority for progressives of all stripes.


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