Worker actions have taken the U.S. by storm from Hollywood to Detroit, as workers emboldened by the pandemic agitate for higher pay and safer conditions and organize at companies, like Starbucks and Amazon, that have historically avoided organized labor. Now, the White House on Monday threw its force behind labor in a report highlighting its effort to bolster worker organizing and the many economic benefits workers see from organizing—even if they aren’t in a union themselves.
There is “evidence that unions strengthen the middle class and grow the economy” by raising wages of members and improving health care, retirement and predictable scheduling plan benefits, according to a joint analysis from the White House and Treasury.
Since the middle of the 20th century, inequality has surged as more and more of the nation’s economic output goes to the top 1% of the income scale while middle-income families fall further behind. Since the 1970s, “income has become more volatile, the amount of time spent on vacation has fallen, and middle-class Americans are less prepared for retirement,” while the likelihood that children will be better off than their parents has also fallen, the report noted.
Against this backdrop, unions can combat this trend “by raising middle-class wages, improving work environments, and promoting demographic equality,” the report said, “building the economy from the middle out.”
“Unions could contribute to reversing the stark increase in inequality we’ve seen in recent decades, promoting economy-wide growth,” said Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
A 50-year high in approval
Workers in a union make on average 10% to 15% more than non-union workers and are more likely to have retirement and medical benefits. Unions also raise wages for non-union workers in their industry, as competing firms are forced to raise the pay they offer, or improve working conditions, to attract employees.
“When union workers bargain for higher pay, it increases pressure on non-union companies to raise pay as well to stay competitive in the labor market,” Vice President Kamala Harris, who leads the White House Labor Task Force, created to support labor organizing and bargaining, told reporters.
“There have been recent signs of a reinvigorated labor movement, as union election petitions in 2022 bounced back from the pandemic to their highest level since 2015,” the analysis says “and public opinion of labor unions is at its highest level in over 50 years.”
Still, the coverage of strikes and an administration that touts its pro-labor bona fides belies the fact that union membership numbers are falling nationally. A January Labor Department report states that 11.3 percent of U.S. workers were represented by a union in 2022, down by 0.3 percent from a year ago and the lowest share since the government started tracking the figure in the 1980s. Globalization, automation and the deterioration of legal support to workers over decades has brought down union participation numbers, administration officials said.
President Joe Biden is counting on critical labor support as he campaigns for a second term in office, holding his first re-election campaign rally at a Pennsylvania union hall in June, declaring: “I’m proud to be the most pro-union president in American history.”
The administration’s show of support comes as unprecedented worker organizing — from strike authorizations to work stoppages — hit multiple industries this year, including transportation, entertainment, hospitality, and healthcare.
Workers calling for higher wages, better working conditions, and job security, especially since the end of the pandemic, have been increasingly willing to walk out on the job as employers face a greater need for workers.
The Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations Labor Action Tracker logged 424 work stoppages—which includes 417 strikes and seven lockouts—involving approximately 224,000 workers in 2022.
Hollywood writers have been striking since early May and have not yet made a deal with the studios. Starbucks workers have unionized at more than 350 stores across the country and a collection of Amazon workers have joined the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters, in hopes of gaining union recognition.
Most recently, auto workers represented by the United Auto Workers union—which still has not endorsed Biden’s 2024 presidential run—voted overwhelmingly to give leaders the authority to call strikes against Detroit car companies Stellantis, General Motors and Ford if a contract agreement isn’t reached.
The contract is set to expire in September.
Since Biden took office, the administration has implemented a slew of executive orders, made it easier for union representatives to organize on federal property, and strengthened retaliation protections for private sector workers.
The nation’s top labor organizations, including the AFL-CIO, American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, have endorsed Biden’s 2024 campaign.
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