A few weeks ago, a producer from Intelligence Squared, a media company that organizes debates, called me and asked me to explain a few things about labor unions and to discuss whether they help or hurt the economy. I was happy to oblige, talking to her for twenty minutes or so, and I was very surprised the next day when she invited me to participate in a debate in which the question would be “Do Unions Work for the Economy?” I was to argue, yes, they do work for the economy.
I hadn’t been in a formal debate since sixth grade, when I got my butt kicked. Back then, I argued “yes” in a debate in which the question was “Are Comic Books Bad for Kids?” After that debate ended, my comics-loving classmates gave me and my argument an overwhelming thumbs down.
During the week before the Intelligence Squared debate was to take place (at the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village), I plunged into research to make the case that unions work for the economy and to respond to my opponent’s expected arguments that unions are bad for the economy.
My opponent for the evening was Allison Schrager, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and—unlike my earlier debate—it was an enjoyable experience to engage with her in such a thoughtful, good-spirited discussion. For those of you who are wondering—and of course not at all to boast—I will note that, according to the metrics Intelligence Squared used that evening, I won the debate.
Below in written, non-debate form, I seek to explain, in some detail, how unions work for the economy—while also seeking to rebut arguments that unions do not work for the economy.
For a moment, I should first discuss what we mean when we say “the economy.” When some people discuss the economy, they typically focus on things like maximizing corporate profits or boosting the Dow Jones Industrial Average. But the economy is about far more than that. The economy isn’t so much about corporations as it is about people—about delivering goods and services, not to mention income and wealth, to make people’s lives better.
Unions, by and large, help make people’s lives better. If unions are about anything, they’re about creating broadly shared prosperity, about lifting pay for workers and reducing gaps between rich and poor, about making sure that jobs are safe, and about assuring that people have health coverage and enough for retirement and also have work-life balance that gives them time to be with their families. In these ways, unions very much work for the economy.
Why We Have Unions in the First Place
Ever since I first saw it, I have loved the bumper sticker, “Unions: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend.” Americans often fail to realize how terrible many jobs used to be, how Americans often used to work six or seven days a week. A century ago, more than 2,000 coal miners died each year on the job. That’s a staggering number that points to an extraordinary lack of regulation and to mining companies’ inexcusable lack of concern about their workers’ safety. Nowadays, only about ten miners die each year on the job. We can thank labor unions for that vast improvement.
Both of my grandfathers worked in New York City’s garment industry, and as a result, I heard a lot about that industry as I was growing up. Early last century, Manhattan’s Lower East Side—less than a mile from where our debate was held—was the capital of the nation’s apparel industry, and tens of thousands of garment workers used to work grueling hours there: six, even seven days a week, often from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. In my book, Beaten Down, Worked Up, I write about a garment worker, Clara Lemlich, who complained that many weeks she never saw the sun, leaving for work before sunup and finishing work after the sun had gone down.
Apparel workers were often cheated, not paid for all their hours worked and all the piecework completed. At one factory, the boss tricked the workers by moving the clock’s hour hand back to five o’clock when it was actually six. Some factories even locked their exit doors to ensure that workers didn’t sneak away with garments. Those locked doors showed a shocking contempt for workers’ safety.
Late one Saturday afternoon in March 1911, a fire erupted on the eighth floor of the Triangle shirtwaist factory, and largely because of a locked exit door, 146 workers died, most of them women, many of them teenagers. Because of that locked door, many workers couldn’t escape down the stairs and, facing unbearable flames and heat, many jumped out of the factory’s windows to their deaths. That horrific fire—at a factory whose owners had led the industry’s fight against unionization—helped spur the growth of apparel industry unions, and today, thanks to labor unions, factories in the United States are infinitely safer, and few factory workers toil seventy-hour weeks.
Two decades later, the Great Depression had gripped America, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and the New Deal Congress felt that far too many workers had wages that were far too low. They thought that workers needed more bargaining power vis-à-vis their employers in order to increase their pay. They were convinced that raising worker pay would increase aggregate demand and boost the overall economy, helping lift the nation out of depression. In 1935, FDR and Congress enacted a landmark law, the National Labor Relations Act, that not only made it far easier to unionize, but gave the federal government’s imprimatur to union organizing.
Helped by that law, millions of workers unionized during the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s, creating large, powerful unions that won far higher wages. Often engaging in huge strikes that dominated the headlines, unions pressured General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, U.S. Steel, and other companies into agreeing to give their workers big raises and good benefits, and in that way, unions were pivotal to building America’s middle class—which soon became the world’s largest and richest middle class. Organized labor’s success enabled millions of workers to buy homes and cars for the first time, and in that way, unions increased overall consumer demand and very much worked for the economy. It is important to note that unions also helped push up the pay of millions of nonunion workers by prompting many companies to significantly improve their employees’ pay and benefits to help discourage them from seeking to unionize.
Unions were pivotal to building America’s middle class—which soon became the world’s largest and richest middle class.
Nowadays, Americans think of auto industry jobs as safe, solid, middle-class jobs, but that wasn’t always the case. Before the industry unionized, those jobs were often unsafe and exploitative. Workers often mangled—and sometimes lost—fingers and hands. Some factory managers forced workers to do things like mow their lawns for free, under the threat of losing their jobs if they refused. Sometimes managers fired more senior, higher-paid workers and then hired them back the next week at lower pay. Before unionization, such blatant workplace injustices were common.
In Beaten Down, Worked Up, I wrote about auto plant conditions in the 1930s, before unionization:
A New York Times reporter who visited a GM plant in Flint [Michigan] was shocked to see the beehive-like swarm of workers and the speed and monotony of their labor. That reporter, Russell B. Porter, wrote of “thousands of men . . . perform[ing] the same operation all day or night, five days a week, the year round.” Completing sixty cars an hour, “they seem to work on strings as a monster jerks them back to begin another car,” Porter added. “Speed, speed, speed—that is Flint morning, noon and night.”
One Buick worker complained, “We didn’t even have time to go to the toilet . . . if there wasn’t anybody to relieve you, you had to run away and tie the line up, and if you tied the line up, you got hell for it.”
Yes, in many ways, it sounds remarkably like the Amazon warehouses of today. In the historic Flint sit-down strike of late 1936 and early 1937, workers at General Motors, then the nation’s largest corporation and ferociously anti-union at the time, finally got G.M to recognize their union. Alfred Lockhart, a General Motors (GM) worker, was overjoyed by the union’s success and the resulting contract. “The inhuman high speed is no more,” Lockhart wrote to a friend. “We now have a voice. . . [We] are now treated as human beings, and not as part of the machinery. . . It proves clearly that united we stand, divided or alone we fall.”
Economic Benefits of Unions
Many statistics and studies combine to make a strong case that unions work for the economy. They raise workers’ wages and make the nation fairer, both economically and socially. Union members earn 10.2 percent more on average than nonunion workers who have comparable jobs and comparable experience.
Unions Help Workers of Color and Women
For workers of color, the so-called union wage premium is even higher. According to the Economic Policy Institute, Black union members earn 13.1 percent more on average than comparable nonunion Black workers, while Hispanic union members earn 18.8 percent more. One study found that 58.8 percent of unionized workers of color owned their own homes, compared with 47.7 percent of nonunion workers of color. More than half of unionized workers of color have 401(k) retirement savings plans, compared with 35 percent of their nonunion peers.
Unions also help reduce the gender pay gap. Nonunion women workers earn, on average, 78 percent of what men earn, while unionized women workers earn 94 percent of what men earn.
Unions also give a lift to workers with disabilities. One study found that unionized workers with disabilities earn 29.8 percent more on average than comparable nonunion workers with disabilities.
Black union members earn 13.1 percent more on average than comparable nonunion Black workers, while Hispanic union members earn 18.8 percent more.
Unions Help Deliver Better Benefits
Union members receive more and better benefits than nonunion workers. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, 85 percent of unionized workers participate in their employers’ retirement plans, compared with just 51 percent of nonunion workers. Seventy-three percent of union members receive health coverage through their employer, far more than the 46 percent for nonunion workers. Union members pay 22 percent of their family health insurance premiums, while nonunion workers pay considerably more, 35 percent—that could mean some $2,000 more per year.
With regard to family health premiums, I wrote last year about Madeleine Souza-Rivera, a barista at a café in one of Google’s giant office complexes in Silicon Valley. After she gave birth to a son, her family health insurance premiums soared to $800 a month. But after Unite Here, the hospitality workers union, unionized Sodexo, the Google food contractor that employed Souza-Rivera, not only did she and her 2,300 coworkers receive raises averaging 25 percent, but her health care premiums plummeted from $9,600 a year to zero. “It’s awesome,” she said about having a union.
Unions Help Reduce Income Inequality
The era when labor unions in the United States were strongest—from 1945 to 1980—was the one era in modern American history when income inequality actually declined. Economists call that period “the Great Compression.” Since 1980, when the percentage of workers in unions began a rapid decline, income inequality has steadily grown, so much so that it’s now almost as bad as it was a century ago. Since 1980, the percentage of the nation’s income going to the top 10 percent of households has increased from 34 percent to 46 percent, while the portion going to the bottom 90 percent (nine times as many households) has slid from 66 percent to 54 percent.
Unions Help Workers Share in Productivity Gains
In another worrisome trend, as unions have grown weaker, American workers have been receiving a far smaller share of their increased productivity. From 1948 to 1979, worker productivity per hour and worker compensation per hour more or less rose at the same rate, with both slightly more than doubling over that thirty-one-year period (productivity rose 118.4 percent and compensation per hour, 107.5 percent). But in the four decades after 1979, during which union density steadily fell, productivity per hour has risen far faster than worker compensation per hour. It has increased 3.9 times as fast as worker pay (62.5 percent versus 15.9 percent).
To be clear, the decline of unions doesn’t alone explain all this bad news for workers. Part of it can be explained by corporations’ increased focus on maximizing profits and part of it by globalization, which has enabled corporations to move production anywhere in the world, often to places with far lower labor costs. That increases corporate profits, while putting downward pressure on workers’ wages in the United States.
Unions Spur Overall Economic Growth
Numerous studies have found that unions spur the economy by reducing income inequality. Inequality harms overall economic growth by putting more money into the hands of the very wealthy, who tend to save that money, and less money into the hands of lower-income and middle-income people, who are very likely to spend it—and thus spur the economy—by buying cars, fuel, washing machines, furniture, baby strollers, food, clothing, and other necessities. Numerous studies have also found that income inequality undercuts economic growth by undermining educational opportunities for children in lower-income households, hampering their skills development as well as their long-term ability to contribute to the economy.
Numerous studies have found that unions spur the economy by reducing income inequality.
Lawrence Summers, the former secretary of the treasury and former Harvard president, and Anna Stansbury, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, an MIT have written that the decline in worker power in the United States, caused in large part by the decline of unions, may contribute to slower economic growth and what they call “secular stagnation,” meaning long-term economic stagnation. Summers—never seen as the reincarnation of Joe Hill—and Stansbury write that “decreases in labor power may operate to promote the reductions in [aggregate] demand and a rising gap between private saving and investment that are defining features of secular stagnation.” Put another way, they say that, as worker incomes have fallen due to decreased worker power, more income has shifted to capital—that is, the wealthy—which increases saving and reduces aggregate demand, undercutting economic growth. (The problem being that increased saving by the wealthy does not translate to a comparable increase in investment to spur the economy.)
Summers and Stansbury write:
As workers have become less able to share in the profits generated by their firms, income has been redistributed from employees to the owners of capital. That has contributed to higher income inequality along class and race lines.
Overall, we believe that increasing worker power must be a central and urgent priority for policymakers concerned with inequality, low pay and poor work conditions.
In other words, Summers and Stansbury are saying that when many workers suffer from low pay and poor work conditions because of a decline in worker power and labor unions, that means something is seriously amiss in the economy.
Economic Myths about Unions
When people attack unions, they frequently point to a problematic case in history—like the Teamsters’ corruption of old, or a unionized company like Hostess going bankrupt—and say it shows that unions don’t work for the economy. That’s a ludicrous overgeneralization. Using that facile logic, people could also point to the failings of Enron, Purdue Pharma, Theranos, or FTX Crypto, or disasters like BP’s Deepwater Horizon or United Carbide’s tragedy in Bhopal, India—in which 3,800 people died—and say corporations don’t work for the economy.
There are other myths about the value of unions that are more pernicious because, on their face, they seem more reasonable and more factually based—typically portraying unions as institutional dinosaurs that simply are bad for business, or in the case of public-sector unions, antithetical to good government. But these myths also do not survive careful scrutiny.
Myth: Unions Are Obsolete
Corporate executives often assert that unions are passé, that unions might have been needed during the Great Depression, but not today, when, they say, so many Americans are prosperous. They also often argue that workers no longer want unions—they point out that the percentage of U.S. workers in unions has fallen to 10 percent from 35 percent in the 1950s.
There are many responses to these arguments. First, many of today’s workers—whether at Starbucks, Apple, Trader Joe’s, Chipotle or REI, whether museum workers, nurses, adjunct professors, digital journalists, nonprofit workers, or grad students—are rushing to unionize, and they clearly think that unions aren’t passé. Video game workers tired of putting in eighty- and ninety-hour weeks are unionizing. Many Amazon workers, fed up with all the stress, onerous production quotas, and problems finding time to go to the bathroom, want to unionize. (When unions enable workers to go to the bathroom without having to worry about being penalized, that, too, means unions work for the economy.)
If corporations are so convinced that workers don’t want to join unions, why do they spend millions of dollars on anti-union lawyers and consultants to fight unionization drives? Why, if workers don’t want unions, do Amazon, Starbucks, Apple, Home Depot, and other companies work so hard to press and pressure their workers not to unionize? Answer: Because they know that many of today’s workers strongly and rightly believe that unions can give them a much-needed voice at work and help improve their jobs and their lives.
A Gallup poll last August found that 71 percent of Americans approve of unions—the highest level in more than half a century. This shows that Americans believe that unions work for the economy. Not only that, recent studies have found that around 50 percent of nonunion workers say they would vote to join a union if they could, including 74 percent of workers aged 18 to 24, 75 percent of Hispanic workers, and 80 percent of African-American workers.
I have long argued that corporate America’s aggressive anti-unionism is the main reason that a mere 6 percent of private-sector workers are in unions when roughly 50 percent of nonunion workers say they want to be in unions. If American corporations weren’t so fiercely anti-union—they fight harder against unionization efforts than corporations in any other industrial nation—the U.S. unionization rate would be far higher. (There are of course other reasons for the decline in union density, such as automation and offshoring, which greatly reduced the number of jobs in the heavily unionized manufacturing sector, and the rapid growth of the service sector, with jobs in such fields as banking, hair salons, hotels, and fast food that are considered harder to unionize than auto plants and steel mills.)
Many newly unionized workers strongly disagree with business’s claims that unions are passé and don’t work. In Houston, 5,300 low-wage janitors unionized in 2006, and in their first-ever union contract, they received a 47 percent raise in their hourly wage, plus their shifts were increased so they’d be paid for thirty hours a week, up from twenty. Not only did those two contract provisions double their weekly paycheck, many janitors and their families received health insurance for the first time.
At PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Hospital in Eugene, Oregon, many employees saw their pay increase by 60 to 70 percent in the six years after that hospital’s 1,100 workers unionized in 2015. For Lorie Quinn, a hospital housekeeper, her pay rose to $18.12 an hour from less than $11 an hour, while her health insurance premiums were cut in half. “It’s amazing,” Quinn said. “I was able to get all my credit cards paid off”—some $1,500 in debt she had previously kept rolling over and paying exorbitant interest on. Not only that, Quinn was able to save enough money to take a two-week vacation to Ireland.
Myth: Unions Make Companies Uncompetitive
Ask a corporate executive, and you often hear that unions are bad because they make companies uncompetitive. But some of the nation’s best-known companies—Boeing, Southwest Airlines, Disney, General Electric, and The New York Times—are unionized, and they’re all highly innovative, highly competitive, and highly successful. Union bashers often cite the problems of Detroit’s automakers to argue that unionized auto companies can’t compete. Well, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Volkswagen, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and Hyundai are all unionized in their home countries, as are Sony, Siemens, and Airbus. They’re all world-beating, hugely competitive companies; so it’s just plain wrong to claim that unionization means companies can’t compete.
Myth: Unions Hurt Efficiency and Productivity
Conservatives and corporate lobbyists have long argued that unions are a wrench in the corporate machinery that hurts efficiency and productivity. Yet many academic studies contradict that notion and have found that unions do not hurt productivity. (Studies have found, however, that unionization often hurts corporate profitability by forcing companies to share more of their revenues with their workers in the form of increased wages and benefits.)
In what is probably the leading study on the issue, Richard B. Freeman, a Harvard labor economist, joined Hristos Doucouliagos and Patrice Laroche to examine more than 300 studies on the effects of unionization on productivity. They concluded that unions do not, overall, reduce productivity, although there are variations in different countries and industries according to specific circumstances. Freeman and his coauthors found that in the United States, unionization appears to be associated with higher productivity in the education and construction sectors, while making no overall difference on productivity in manufacturing.
Unions can of course hamstring management’s flexibility, but they also have several pronounced advantages for productivity. Unions can make a company a more desirable place to work and thereby help attract more and better job applicants. Unions generally reduce employee turnover and increase workers’ loyalty and commitment to their employer’s success. More experienced, more dedicated workers are more productive workers.
Myth: Public-Sector Unions Hurt the Public
For many conservatives, public-employee unions are a favorite punching bag. I won’t deny there are some problems with government-employee unions. Public-sector unions sometimes get politicians to agree to overly generous pensions. Police unions sometimes do too good a job making sure that officers who did serious wrong are not held accountable. These problems with unions need to be addressed, just as the myriad problems with corporations and government need to be addressed, but these problems do not mean that unions don’t work for the economy.
Before teachers’ unions came along, many teaching jobs paid so little that many talented individuals rejected teaching as a profession.
The public too often forgets the good that public-sector unions do. Before teachers’ unions came along, many teaching jobs paid so little that many talented individuals rejected teaching as a profession. Unions increased teacher pay and made teaching far more attractive, helping persuade many talented people to go into the field.
Many public-sector unions work hard not just to win raises for members, but to help the public and improve public services. I once wrote about child protective services workers in Wisconsin; they used to have an average caseload of fifteen abused or neglected children, but due to budget austerity, their caseloads soared to forty or fifty—an unwieldy number that was bad for the children, bad for the workers, and bad for the public good. Individual case workers were too scared to speak out about their onerous caseloads, but their union spoke out and got their caseloads reduced so that Wisconsin’s child protection workers could do a far better job serving abused and neglected children.
John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in the 1950s that unions were an important countervailing force to hold corporate power in check. While unions are weaker today, they can still be an important countervailing force for good. Take the statewide teachers strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona in 2018. In all three states, conservative forces, helped by the powerful Koch Brothers’ campaign finance network, had won control of the governor’s mansion and state legislature and cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy and also for fracking. Those tax cuts strained those states’ budgets and left too little money for the schools of all three states. Year after year teachers’ salaries hardly rose, and as a result, many teachers left the profession or found higher paying jobs in neighboring states. In all three states, a serious teacher shortage developed , causing student-teacher ratios to climb and some districts to hire inexperienced, uncertified teachers.
In West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, tens of thousands of teachers stood up and said this is unsustainable—the tax cuts may be good for corporations and the rich, but the situation is terrible for our schools and our kids, and that is going to hurt our states in the long run. So teachers in those three states went on strike to pressure their governors and legislatures to agree to increase teacher salaries, yes, to improve their lives, but also to attract more teaching applicants and to stem the exodus of teachers—and thus to reduce student-teacher ratios. In those three states, teachers served as a healthy countervailing force against lawmakers and their wealthy donors—those donors were the rich and powerful folks on whom the legislatures were lavishing tax cuts, while schools were starved of the funding they needed. This was an excellent example of unions fighting for the common good.
We saw the same thing in the Los Angeles teachers’ strike of 2019. Schools in low-income neighborhoods often didn’t have enough resources, and the striking teachers demanded more librarians, school nurses, and school counselors for them. This past September, teachers in Seattle went on strike demanding that the school district hire more aides to serve special education students and multilingual students. In Columbus, Ohio, a big reason that teachers went on strike in September was that they were angry that many schools didn’t have air conditioning or adequate heating, leaving students sweltering in summer and shivering in winter, often making it too uncomfortable for them to concentrate and learn.
A 2019 study of teachers’ unions across the United States concluded that, where “union effects are found, they are almost universally found to be positive for student performance.” The professors who conducted that study—Professors Eunice Han and Thomas N. Maloney of the University of Utah—also found that “the presence of an active teachers’ union . . . is associated with higher levels of student achievement on standardized tests, particularly in middle-class school districts.”
Han and Maloney wrote that among the factors that might help teachers’ unions improve student performance are the unions’ effects on “teacher morale, professionalism, and collective voice” and “the union’s ability to bargain for higher pay and better working conditions for themselves and more resources for students.” The two professors also noted that teachers’ unions enhance the ability “for teachers to influence school practices” and foster an “elevated sense of worth in one’s work.”
Unions in the Economy of the Future
From time to time, I have heard people argue that there is no place for unions in the new economy, that as corporations use more robots and artificial intelligence, unions will just get in the way and interfere with the introduction of needed new technologies. To my mind, unions are needed all the more in a world in which corporations are increasingly going to use AI, robots, and other technologies to replace millions of workers. That could mean a bleaker future for many American workers, a future in which ever-higher profits go to those who own the means—and technologies—of production and in which there’s ever-greater desperation for those laid off and shunted aside.
As we hurtle into the economy of tomorrow, these rapid, turbulent changes underline the need for an institution—let’s call them unions—that fights on behalf of displaced, displaceable, and desperate workers, an institution that will seek to protect the interests of workers, an institution that won’t combat against new technologies, but will fight to make sure new technologies are introduced in ways that minimize—or at least limit—damage to workers, as we’ve seen with the hotel workers union and the hotel casinos in Las Vegas. That union, the Culinary Union, has negotiated contracts that would mitigate the harm from employment churn by pushing to help workers handle and adapt to new technologies—contracts that require the Las Vegas hotels to give six months’ advance notice of technologies they plan to introduce. The union’s contracts obligate the hotels to provide free retraining to workers so they can use new technologies introduced into their current jobs and also provide free training so workers can move into new jobs that are created due to new technologies. As technology companies become ever more powerful and as there’s ever more pressure to adopt new, job-eliminating technologies, unions can be an important force to assure more fairness for workers in the brave, new, technological world of the future. (An example: the Las Vegas union has contracts that call for hotels to give priority recall rights for two years to employees who are laid off because of new technologies.)
If AI and robots someday perform a huge portion of the jobs now done by humans, that might be great for productivity and profits, but what is going to happen to all those workers?
A famous anecdote about Walter Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers after World War II, is relevant here. Reuther was given a tour of a Ford plant in Cleveland during the 1950s, and a Ford executive pointed to several early robots that did various assembly-line tasks. The executive asked Reuther, “How are you going to collect union dues from these guys?” Reuther responded, “How are you going to get them to buy Fords?”
If AI and robots someday perform a huge portion of the jobs now done by humans, that might be great for productivity and profits, but what is going to happen to all those workers? Will they be retrained or discarded, and if millions of workers lose their jobs, who is going to buy consumer products and what is going to sustain aggregate demand? It would be good for the overall economy to have labor unions—and not just corporate executives preoccupied with profit-maximization—helping to answer these weighty economic and social questions.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a Paris-based group of three dozen wealthy industrial nations, very much thinks that unions have a valuable role in the new economy. In 2019, the OECD issued a major report that said unions can play an important role in helping “tailor” solutions to the economic and workforce challenges of tomorrow. The OECD’s praise for unions was somewhat unexpected, considering that it is often seen as a mouthpiece for conservative-minded finance ministers and treasury secretaries. The OECD wrote:
Collective bargaining, when it is based on mutual trust between social partners, can provide a means to reach balanced and tailored solutions to issues of common concerns. It can ensure that all workers and companies benefit from the current transformations [i.e., changes]. It can help formulate solutions to emerging issues.
The OECD added that unions, working with management, can help with the introduction and use of new technologies and help workers achieve work-life balance. It also said unions can help support and retrain displaced workers and provide training and skills needed in the future.
In announcing the OECD’s report, Stefano Scarpetta, the group’s director of employment, labor, and social affairs, said, “More than ever collective bargaining, when based on mutual trust between social partners . . . can help companies and workers respond to demographic and technological change and adapt to the new world of work.” Evidently, many workers at Apple stores, Kickstarter, and Activision (a video game company), think there’s a role for unions in the new economy. And so do many workers who have service jobs for Google, Facebook, and other tech companies.
Admittedly the 30-year-old software engineers at Facebook or Microsoft who make $300,000 a year might not need a union, although many tech workers want a greater voice on the job, perhaps through a union. We saw these tech workers clamoring for a more of a say when they protested Google’s initial efforts to help China develop a censored search engine (Google dropped the project) and when Microsoft employees suspected that the Trump administration was using Microsoft’s cloud services to power facial recognition and other technologies to help separate immigrant children from their families.
There are of course many people who work for tech companies or tech company subcontractors who are making a lot less than $300,000 a year. Don’t tell Richard Ramirez, who works for Google in Seattle, that unions are not relevant and not helpful in the new economy.
According to a Washington Post story, Ramirez ‘s job is receiving and storing food shipments for Google. He was at first skeptical about unionizing. He was quite happy earning $20 an hour, although he had a grueling commute, more than three hours a day due to the high cost of housing in the Seattle area.
During the pandemic, 4,000 Google cafeteria workers unionized, and as a result, Ramirez’s pay jumped to $27 an hour, meaning a 35 percent raise. Moreover, he now has a no-premium health plan. Nowadays, he’s hugely thankful about having a union, saying, “Since we unionized, I have bought a home and that was basically only possible because we unionized.”
Unions have worked very well for Richard Ramirez and millions of other workers like Richard Ramirez. In this way, unions work for the economy.
Beyond the Economy: Ensuring Dignity
There is another important, too often overlooked thing that unions do: they help ensure that workers are treated with respect, and it’s hard to say that an economy works if millions of workers aren’t treated with respect. Several years ago, I was in Memphis to do a New York Times story about Kellogg’s locking out 225 workers at its cereal factory there. While I was in Memphis, I made sure to meet with several heroic men who had participated in that city’s famous 1968 sanitation workers’ strike, where the iconic motto “I Am A Man” was born.
One evening I met with Elmore Nickleberry, a gentle, soft-spoken man, then in his eighties, who had vivid memories of the long-ago strike and the demeaning conditions he endured as a sanitation worker for the City of Memphis. Before taking that job, Nickleberry had served in the Korean War as a corporal in the U.S. Army; he told me that people treated him with more respect in Korea, than back home in Memphis. “Everybody [in Memphis] called us ‘boy,’” Nickleberry said. “The supervisors [all of them white] also called us ‘boy.’ You’d tell them ‘I ain’t no boy. I am a man.’ And they’d keep calling you ‘boy.’”
As I explain in Beaten Down, Worked Up, Nickleberry used to work as a “tub toter.” He went into people’s backyards, transferred their garbage into a seventeen-gallon, round, plastic tub, and then carried the tub to the truck in the street. He often carried the tub on his head, and the garbage juices, often along with maggots, seeped down his neck and onto his shoulders. After eight hours, he’d be fiendishly sweaty. The toters, nearly all of them African-American, complained that the sanitation garages didn’t even have showers for them after they hauled garbage all day long in 85-degree or 95-degree heat.
In 1968, after fourteen years on the job, Nickleberry was earning a mere five cents more than the federal minimum wage at the time. The pay was so low that 40 percent of the trash collectors’ families fell below the poverty line, with many qualifying for welfare and food stamps. After years of growing more and more frustrated about the meager pay and indignities, they finally reached the boiling point and went on strike when two coworkers were crushed to death by a malfunctioning garbage truck.
Week after week, Nickleberry and the other strikers marched with their “I Am a Man” signs. At times, the police beat and billy-clubbed the strikers. Nickleberry’s hero, the Reverand Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., went to Memphis to help bring national attention to the strike. Dr. King was assassinated while in Memphis, fighting for the sanitation workers. It was only after that tragic assassination that Memphis officials, pushed by President Lyndon Johnson, finally decided to recognize the sanitation workers’ union and give them a substantial raise.
When I interviewed Nickleberry, he said the union had changed his life. “With the union, we got a good raise,” he said. “We got showers. We got better working conditions. We got health benefits. Before we had to pay doctor bills ourselves.”
The biggest thing the union won, Nickleberry said, was dignity: “The union came in and we got respect. They stopped calling us ‘boy.’ They started calling us ‘A Man. A Sanitation Man.’”
Nickleberry added, “If we didn’t have a union, we would get nothing. We’d be in the same shape as before.”
All this leads me to what Dr. King once said about labor unions and how they work for the economy. “The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress,” King said. “Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old age pensions, government relief for the destitute, and above all new wage levels that meant not mere survival, but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome.”