via Wiretap by Adam Waxman A central theme of the now-complete America’s Future Now! conference was the importance of a piece of legislation that is working it’s way through Congress right now, a bill called the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). EFCA is the apple of organized labor’s eye – it would allow workers to more easily form unions by streamlining the union elections process and punishing employers who illegally block union organizing efforts. Now, I should note here that one of the reasons I am writing about this issue is because I wanted an excuse to link to a video of Communications Workers of America (CWA) president Larry Cohen, who was at the conference and is super effective as a speaker. The different panels got me thinking – should young people care about the decline of unions in the United States?
Unions have been declining since the 1970s, losing members at a rapid clip. This chart from the Economic Policy Institute shows the decline in union membership in the United States over the last 30 years:
Now, labor is declining for many reasons. Current law makes it very difficult for unions to organize, as detailed here by American Rights at Work (and a little bit in Cohen’s speech, above – workers are routinely fired, intimidated, and harassed during organizing campaigns, and even if the campaign is successful a company can drag its feet to keep the union from winning).
Matt Yglesias at the Center for American Progress Action Fund pointed out another important aspect of labor’s decline – the sectors where labor is strong are an ever-shrinking part of the national economy. Think industrial operations and manufacturing. Those workers don’t get replaced because unions can’t organize in new sectors. So that means that whole swaths of the economy are completely union-free. The result of that greatly impacts how the overall economy looks as those sectors grow and become profitable. It’s probably not surprising to learn that as unions have declined, economic inequality has worsened. Consider this chart (again from EPI):
This, to me, says that young people should be concerned about the decline of American labor. As new sectors of the economy emerge, do we want the wealth produced by those sectors to be broadly shared? It seems clear to me that without unions, the 21st century economy will not broadly benefit my generation. Instead, the benefits will go to the same wealthy individuals who are benefiting now. Young people should be concerned about the decline of labor, because the issue will impact us as we join the labor force and start our careers.