500: Unions

Would you (or have you) ever been a part of a union?


Full episode script

To start with, there are a number of different types of unions that one could talk about here, but we’re going to talk about one of the most widely-discussed — labor unions. These collective bargaining organizations, quoting from FindLaw:

Unions exist as a means for employees to organize and protect their rights in the workplace, including through representation in collective bargaining with employers. Collective bargaining is the process of negotiations between an employer and a group of employees in order to determine certain conditions and terms of employment.

In general in the United States, union membership has been dropping in recent decades. Quoting from Niall McCarthy writing in Forbes:

According to the OECD, 80 million workers in its member states are part of labor unions while an estimated 155 million are covered by collective agreements at some level, whether it be national, regional, sectoral or occupational. The share of workers covered by collective agreements has also contracted in a similar manner to labor union membership, falling from 45 percent in 1985 to 33 percent in 2015. Across OECD countries, labor union density varies considerably, and Iceland has the highest membership rate at 91.8 percent. Sweden also has a high rate of union membership at 67 percent while just over a quarter of Irish and Canadian workers are part of a union.

US statistics tell us that in 2017, about 10 percent of American workers were a part of a union.

There’s a number of arguments both for and against union membership — and a complicated set of economic forces at work. Fivethirtyeight digs in to many of these, pointing out that, quote:

Unions also help explain why the middle class is healthier in the Midwest than in the Southeast, where manufacturing jobs have been growing rapidly in recent decades. A new analysis from the Pew Research Center this week explored the state of the middle class in different parts of the country by looking at the share of households making between two-thirds and double the national median income, after controlling for the local cost of living. In many Midwestern cities, 60 percent or more of households are considered “middle-income” by this definition; in some Southern cities, even those with large manufacturing bases, middle-income households are now in the minority. When politicians pledge to protect manufacturing jobs, they really mean a certain kind of job: well-paid, long-lasting, with opportunities for advancement. Those aren’t qualities associated with working on a factory floor; they’re qualities associated with being a member of a union. Liberal economists note that overall wages tend to be higher in union-friendly states; conservative economists counter that unemployment tends to be higher in those states, too.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.