Subject: [SocialistWorker.org] Ready for the union
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Comment: Adam Turl
======== READY FOR THE UNION =================================================
Adam Turl looks at what unions can do for young workers--and what youth could
do for organized labor.
January 7, 2009
A RECENT study, "Unions and Upward Mobility for Young Workers," by the Center
for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) confirms that the need to join unions
couldn't be a more pressing issue for those coming of age today.
Of course, workplace organization was an urgent need for youth even before
the onset of the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression. The
prospects for young working-class people had already worsened after three
decades of stagnant wages and rising inequality.
The CEPR study notes that average wages (adjusted for inflation) for 18- to
29-year-olds were roughly 10 percent lower in 2007 than in 1979. Earlier
research showed that some young workers were making up to $8,000 less per
year in 2004 compared to 1975.
This precipitous decline in the material well-being of young workers occurred
even as they increasingly flocked to universities, community colleges and
trade schools to prepare and train for what were once called the "high-value
jobs" of a "new global economy."
Between 1979 and 2007, the percentage of 18- to 29-year-olds with a college
degree increased from 16.1 percent to 22.4 percent. The number of students
who attended college (but didn't necessarily graduate) nearly doubled.
But this surge in secondary and vocational education didn't alter the
downward trajectory of young workers' incomes. Instead, workers were saddled
with greater debt as a result of taking on student loans to pay skyrocketing
This increase in educational achievement shows that the problem can't be
boiled down to individual solutions (work harder and get ahead) or greater
access to job training (although the government has repeatedly failed to
deliver such training).
Instead, the root of the problem lies with the employers' neoliberal assault
on unions and working-class people generally, which drove down wages and
eliminated higher-paying unionized jobs in manufacturing.
Since the late 1970s, each cohort of young workers has entered a job market
in flux, as older centers of industrial production declined, and new ones
developed. Some manufacturing jobs disappeared as the result of
globalization. In many other cases, technological advances were used by
companies to have fewer workers produce more--often at lower wages.
Meanwhile, the U.S. economy shifted toward more service jobs, which typically
pay worse than the factory jobs they replaced.
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ANOTHER KEY issue in the declining wages for young workers was the decay of
organized labor. As the CEPR study puts it:
>One factor contributing to the absolute and relative decline in the wages of
>young workers is the steep drop over the same period in their unionization
>rate. In 1983 (earliest year available), 16.0 percent of young workers were
>in a union; by 2007, the figure had fallen by almost half to 8.2 percent.
As a result, many young workers are employed in industries that are virtually
nonunion--and employers have spared no expense to keep them that way.
Union-busting bosses have been able to rely on U.S. labor laws that
overwhelmingly favor business--and have made it increasingly difficult to
organize the unorganized, even in growing industries.
Now the global recession has profoundly deepened the crisis facing young
workers. From the spike in unemployment and underemployment to sharp--often
double-digit--increases in college tuition and fees, young workers face
conditions that cry out for greater union representation.
Unions can undermine the leverage that capitalists have in the labor market
by overcoming competition between workers and allowing them to negotiate with
employers for a greater share of the wealth that workers themselves create.
Unions also give workers dignity and a sense of their power by giving them a
greater say over the conditions of work itself.
Today's economic crisis makes unionization all the more urgent as workers
face layoffs, wage cuts and attempts to eliminate health insurance and other
In the context of this economic meltdown, the union advantage is clearer than
ever. As the CEPR study showed, unionized workers aged 18 to 29, whether
skilled or unskilled, earn wages an average of 12.4 percent higher than their
nonunion counterparts. And between 2004 and 2007, the median income for young
workers in unionized jobs was about $15.57 per hour, compared to $11 for
nonunion young workers.
The study also found that young workers in unions are 17 percent more likely
to have employer-provided health care and 24 percent more likely to have an
employer-provided pension plan. In "low-wage occupations," workers are 27
percent more likely to have employer-provided health care. Nearly 40 percent
of young workers in these occupations have health coverage, compared to less
than 20 percent of nonunion youth.
These numbers show why Corporate America erected every imaginable impediment
to prevent workers from combining into unions for the past 30 years--at the
same time as it implemented an all-out war to break up and destroy existing
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THE TIMES, however, are changing.
Take the potential re-introduction of the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act
(EFCA). EFCA would allow employees in many workplaces to forgo the current
drawn-out process of a National Labor Relations Board (NRLB) election.
The NLRB process invariably favors employers by allowing corporations more
time to intimidate employees during a protracted campaign that
culminates--usually after several delays--in a (supposedly) secret ballot. On
the other hand, EFCA would allow workers to win union recognition by merely
getting a majority to sign union cards.
In 2007, EFCA passed a vote in the House of Representatives before failing to
get a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. But in 2009, the Democrats
will have greater majorities in both houses, and President-elect Barack Obama
has said he would sign EFCA into law if it reached his desk.
Passage of a significant piece of pro-union labor legislation has become a
real possibility. But it won't happen without a fight.
For example, the /Wall Street Journal/ ran an op-ed article calling EFCA
"unconstitutional" because it would force employers who refuse to recognize a
union into arbitration to settle contract and other disputes.
Nevertheless, even some establishment heavyweights are in favor of EFCA. For
example, the /New York Times/ editorial page weighed in to support passage of
>The measure is vital legislation and should not be postponed. Even modest
>increases in the share of the unionized labor force push wages upward,
>because nonunion workplaces must keep up with unionized ones that
>collectively bargain for increases. By giving employees a bigger say in
>compensation issues, unions also help to establish corporate norms, the
>absence of which has contributed to unjustifiable disparities between
>executive pay and rank-and-file pay.
But support from the /Times/ editorial board won't mean anything unless
unions step up the fight. The labor movement should take the lead in
aggressively pushing EFCA--and not merely through lobbying, but by mobilizing
union members to publicize what's at stake, to protest and to put real
pressure on the politicians in Washington.
The unions could also reach out to young workers and students to join a
movement to support EFCA--and the labor movement more generally. Young
workers are more open to the importance of unions than at almost any time in
two generations. Studies have shown that young people under the age of 29 are
the second most pro-union group of any age group in 40 years.
Numerous young workers and students rallied around the cause of the
victorious Republic Windows and Doors factory occupation in Chicago in
December, and the efforts to organize Starbucks have also been initiated by
young workers. Student groups worked to support the long, bitter union drive
that recently prevailed at the big Smithfield meatpacking plant in Tar Heel,
These same workers and students can be convinced to rally around the cause of
EFCA specifically, and unions more generally. Young workers have a vested
interest in organizing in their workplaces and schools--pushing for
resolutions in student governments, collecting petitions, and reaching out to
faculty and staff unions on campuses to build solidarity and support.
Younger workers can--and must--play a role in revitalizing a labor movement
that has been on the defensive for 30 years. It's already clear that in this
economic crisis, young workers will have to fight hard to achieve a decent
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
What else to read
For an overview of the prospects of working-class youth, see the Center for
Economic and Policy Research report "Unions and Upward Mobility for Young
Workers,"  written by John Schmitt.
The Demos report on "The Economic State of Young America,"  by Tamara
Draut, contains a wealth of information about conditions for young people
today. The full report is available for download.
The biannual /State of Working America/  is an excellent source of facts,
figures and tables about living conditions for U.S. workers. Many parts of
the current edition are available on the State of Working America  Web
For more on the U.S. labor movement over recent decades, see Kim Moody's book
/U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition/ .
Many of the same questions have been taken up in the /International Socialist
Review /. See Lee Sustar's "The failure of partnership"  and "The labor
movement: State of emergency, signs of renewal." 
For a history of the U.S. working-class movement, including an analysis of
current-day conditions and prospects, see Sharon Smith's /Subterranean Fire:
A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States/ .
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