When Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama decided not to form a union, many analysts saw ir as a major blow to a waning labor movement. The broader question is, after years of decline, do unions have a future? And should the vast majority of Americans even care?
David Madland is a labor expert at the Center for American Progress. He says unions can be saved. And that if we do, it could help all of us.
Listen to the full conversation here:
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Matt Robison: If only about one in eight Americans is in a union these days, why should the other seven care?
David Madland: If you look at some of the biggest problems facing our country’s economy and our democracy – stagnant wages which combine with skyrocketing costs to squeeze the middle class, economic inequality in our country near a record high, huge pay gaps between men and women and between whites and Blacks or Hispanics – unions can help address all of those issues. And unions have been proven to raise wages not only for union members, but also broadly all of society. They reduce inequality across the country. So they help bring up the bottom and the middle, and they keep the top in check.
Unions are in trouble now. We used to have a third of workers in unions. Now in the private sector it’s down to 6%. Strengthening unions could help address the biggest core problems that our country faces.
Matt Robison: Why have we seen this kind of decline?. According to Gallup polling, people’s perceptions of labor unions have consistently been positive by around a two to one margin. People support unions. So how did we get here?
David Madland: It’s true. Polls show that more than half of all workers say they would like to join a union if they could. The main factor contributing to union decline is that the economy has changed. We have shifted from more manufacturing to more services. But also, our policies have made it very, very hard for workers who want to join a union. Companies are able to exert strong pressure tactics. Some go so far as to break the law. But if they do, there are no financial penalties. Most of the time, they just post a notice that they acknowledge that they broke the law. That’s not much of a disincentive.
Matt Robison: What is fact and what is fiction when it comes to the benefits and costs of union membership?
David Madland: There’s plenty of grounds to criticize unions, and some of the criticisms are true. One can always find examples, even horror stories. Not every union at every moment is going to be perfect. And there are things that some workers don’t like. For example, you might have to pay “fair share” fees for the union to negotiate the next contract, even if you don’t belong to the union. But it is worth bearing in mind that research shows that union members receive about 12% – 13% higher wages. They are 30% – 50% more likely to receive benefits like healthcare and retirement. And those benefits are of higher quality. The workforce training they get is going to be better. So they get much more overall, way more than the costs.
Matt Robison: What are labor’s greatest challenges?
David Madland: As I mentioned, the economy has changed, and organizing the Walmarts and Amazons of the world is hard. But maybe an even bigger issue is the changing nature of politics. Unions have become an incredibly partisan issue. Leaders in the Republican party now see it as being in their interest to weaken unions. That also leads to a partisan split on legal issues and on what judges get put on the bench. That’s where we begin to see issues like the Supreme Court making rulings that make it very hard for unions to operate.
Matt Robison: You connected the dots earlier: stronger unions means better pay and benefits for everyone, less inequality, and a stronger workforce. How do we get step one to happen? How would you strengthen unions again?
David Madland: It would certainly help to have our policy actually encourage workers to join unions, rather than being hostile. But beyond that we should adopt the successful model from other countries and encourage more bargaining at the sectoral or industry-wide level, not just the workplace by workplace level that we currently have.
There are a number of benefits. First, many more workers would get covered by a collective bargaining agreement. So that means more workers would have higher wages, and more workers would get higher benefits.
But there is an effect for companies too. They would have to focus more on competition based on higher productivity, not trying to cut wages. The most productive companies would win. That’s much better for American competitiveness, and better for workers too. Productivity gains lead to higher standards of living.
At the end of the day, you would have better paid workers, companies competing more on the basis of productive workers and better products, and a society with stronger companies to compete internationally with better trained workers.
We share edited excerpts from the Great Ideas podcast every week that explain how policies work and present innovative solutions for problems. Please subscribe, and to hear David Madland’s other insights on unions and the American economy, check out the full episode on Apple, Spotify, Google, Anchor, Breaker, Pocket, RadioPublic, or Stitcher.
Matt Robison is a writer and political analyst who focuses on trends in demographics, psychology, policy, and economics that are shaping American politics. He spent a decade working on Capitol Hill as a Legislative Director and Chief of Staff to three Members of Congress, and also worked as a senior advisor, campaign manager, or consultant on several Congressional races, with a focus in New Hampshire. In 2012, he ran a come-from-behind race that national political analysts called the biggest surprise win of the election. He went on to work as Policy Director in the New Hampshire state senate, successfully helping to coordinate the legislative effort to pass Medicaid expansion. He has also done extensive private sector work on energy regulatory policy. Matt holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics from Swarthmore College and a Master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He lives with his wife and three children in Amherst, Massachusetts.