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Another Voice: Reports of unions' demise may be premature

By Tom Baker

While some pundits are writing American labor’s obituary, union representation across New York hit a six-year record high of more than one in four workers last year, according to new information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics – that’s the highest labor movement coverage in the U.S. With 2.1 million members statewide, union coverage has grown almost nine percent since 2012.

During 40 years spent organizing thousands of employees, including almost 20 years as a national representative for Canada’s largest union, I have developed an abiding interest in charting what role workers might play in today’s rat race beyond being its’ victims. Few of us have no opinion about the future of unions.

The American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) notes that unions have achieved a level of majority support in public opinion not seen since 2003.  Still a long-term decline in the proportion of U.S. employees covered by collective bargaining continues to hamper their relevance for ordinary people.

More than 16 million Americans are represented by organized labor. That means about 12 percent of U.S. workers are part of the union movement.

American union coverage is much lower compared to other open economies with a similar history like Canada, with more than 4.7 million workers represented by unions, or the United Kingdom, with more than 6.3 million workers. However, that coverage still adds up to millions more workers involved in the American labor movement due to the huge size of the economy.

In my experience some of the national variation in union coverage may be explained by different state labor laws. There are no "right to work" rules anywhere in Canada. The U.K. labor movement was cut in half  by new rules introduced in the 1980s but their labor law still focuses on union rights, not restrictions.

Beyond simple matters of employee coverage, the real value of American trade unions may be their influence. Organized labor plays a key role in raising the wage floor through political action, including paying jobs what they are worth.

Union efforts to raise the minimum wage and reduce the ranks of the working poor in New York owe their success to the same factors that aided activists in Ontario. Both of these large labor markets have seen significant increases to their wage floor without impacting hidden employment, as indicated by alternative measures of labor utilization from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
and Statistics Canada. At the same time, these regions have higher than average union coverage rates for North America.

So reports of the union movement’s demise may be premature. Given a level playing field, organized labor continues to act as an important spark plug for fairness.

Tom Baker of Burlington, Ont., is a retired union organizer.

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