Scott MacKay Commentary: Organized Labor's Private Sector Woes

Sep 1, 2017

It’s Labor Day, the holiday celebrating working people. That got RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay thinking about unions, and the decline of organized labor in the private economy.  

If you’re enjoying a paid day off today, you can thank organized labor. If you get paid overtime, you can thank the same folks. And if you toil in a safe workplace where no children are working, well, the unions did that too.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, workers pay increased as the national economy blossomed. In those days, more than a third of American workers were unionized. In some manufacturing sectors in states such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the rate of unionization was even higher.

Since, unions have been in sharp decline. Less than 10 percent of private sector workers nationwide are union members. In Massachusetts, where 13 percent of workers are union, and Rhode Island, where about 17 percent carry union cards, the growth of organized labor in recent years has been mostly among health care and government employees.

Plummeting labor union membership has given rise to rampant income inequality and stagnant wages. The median inflation-adjusted earnings of full-time male workers peaked in 1973, according to Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia University economist. The wages of financiers and highly paid managers has skyrocketed.

Labor Day was once much more than a last summer afternoon at the beach. A century ago, Labor Day was a time for activism and big celebrations. In 1893, after years of pressure by workers and union leaders, the Rhode Island General Assembly established the first Monday in September as a legal, albeit unpaid, holiday. A year later the federal government followed suit.

The first Labor Day celebration in Rhode Island drew an estimated 100,000 to the streets of Providence for a parade. No longer do workers stage long parades, but there are reminders of Labor Day’s significance .

Union activists will gather this morning at the Moshassuck Cemetery in Central Falls to remember the 1934 Saylesville Massacre, when national guard troops fired on textile factory strikers, killing one and injuring many more. In the afternoon, Jobs for Justice activists and labor leaders will rally at Burnside Park in Providence.

The hollowing out of manufacturing and the decline of unions hit this region particularly hard, says Richard McIntyre, chairman of the economics department at the University of Rhode Island. While public employees such as cops, firefighters and teachers are represented by unions, almost no workers in such big private employment pools as retailing and fast food benefit from collective bargaining.

Much has been made of the alienation of workers who have lost jobs to automation and globalization. Books such as “Hillybilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis” have climbed to the top of best-seller lists. Donald Trump tapped into this sentiment, riding the votes of disaffected white workers to the White House.

What we as a society have lost with the implosion of unions, says McIntyre, can’t be measured only in a reduced standard of living alone. “Gone are the cultural and political benefits for workers,” he says.

Unions helped assimilate generations of immigrants, provide outlets for social and political organizing and sponsor clubs, baseball leagues, newspapers and credit unions. This is best viewed locally at the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, which is open free today to the public. There was a time when even assembly line workers had pensions and first-class health benefits.

Young people are increasingly employed in the free-lance, economy. These jobs provide scant security and are bereft of benefits once taken for granted by union workers, such as paid sick days and vacations.

The loss of private sector workers has split the labor movement. Workers without union benefits view public employees, paid with tax dollars, earning decent wages and qualifying for pensions. This had led to a politics of envy, as taxpayers begrudge public employees their benefits.

It isn’t like this everywhere. In Canada, union representation is still better than 25 percent of employees. And in Scandinavia, it is more than 50 percent.

A revival of unions will likely come from the millennial generation, when they wake up and realize a go-it-alone laissez-faire society works for the few, not the many.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:45 and 8:45 on Morning Edition and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his reporting and analysis at our `On Politics blog at RIPR.org