For many full-time employees in the United States, the five-day work week, paid overtime and holidays are expected benefits. This wasn't always so, and many workers' benefits today are the achievements of labor unions.
Just five decades ago, labor unions were on the frontline of the fight for the rights and wages of the middle class. But today, unions are on the decline.
After World War II, organized labor represented a third of America's work force. Only 12 percent of today's work force belongs to privates unions. About three times that many belong to public unions, but they're in the cross-hairs of cash-strapped states and cities.
Just last month, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker celebrated a victory after winning his recall election that was triggered when he abolished public union collective bargaining. Similar anti-union efforts took place in Indiana and Ohio.
Voters in Ohio later repealed a law that would limit collective bargaining for some public sector unions, but unions in many states are still at odds with government. So if unions decline, where does that leave the middle class?
The Power Of Unions
Marcus Oladell, a 62-year-old from East Hartford, Connecticut, has been a bus driver in the area for about 15 years. Just 12 years ago, Oladell helped form a union of school bus drivers with the Teamsters.
Since unionizing, he tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Jacki Lyden that starting wages for drivers have doubled to $16 an hour. Before unionizing, senior drivers were given raises of a just a nickel an hour.
"If they ever tried to give us a nickel raise now, we'd be walking," Oladell says. "So we had no holidays, now we're up to eight a year. In our last contract, which we never had before, there was a longevity bonus given to members there for 10, 15 and 20 years."
While they're not getting rich, Oladell says no one could argue the unions have raised the standards compared to what they had just 12 years ago.
Oladell became shop steward of his local for the Teamsters. He now travels across the country helping organize bus yards like his.
"The generation behind us has to get an understanding of how powerful a union can be," he says. "If that middle class is going to be strong, it has to be represented by unions.
Unions And The Middle Class
Middle class wages, at least for the majority of people, are the invention of American unions, says Harold Meyerson, a political columnist for the Washington Post and an editor-at-large at American Prospect Magazine. He says if big labor dies, then America's middle class dies with it.
In a recent column, Meyerson points to the decades after World War II, a time of shared prosperity, when productivity and median household income both increased by over 100 percent. It was also a time of peak unionization.
"This had an effect on non-union workers as well," Meyerson tells Lyden. "Non-union workers in industries that were heavily unionized, ... their employers had to compete with union employers. This raised wages for everyone."
As unions have declined, Meyerson says we've seen a decline in the average wage in some sectors in some cases dramatically. In the auto industry, unionized jobs once paid upward of $28 an hour. He says workers in both union and non-union plants are now hired at about $13 to $15 an hour, and in some cases can't earn more than $19 an hour.
Without a middle class helped by unions, Meyerson says the U.S. would continue down a path of massive inequality of wealth and low levels of mobility.
"People are not moving up the economic ladder now," he says. "We would have real decline in wealth because people's income isn't keeping up, so most of their wealth is in their homes ... [and] people have lost two decades worth of value on their homes. We would have a really strapped middle class."
This, in fact, is what we have now, he says.
Tough Choices For Cities
Public sector unions have grown as cities and the demand for services has expanded. That's where the crisis comes in, especially as the economy has fallen.
On the same day as the tumultuous recall vote in Wisconsin, two California cities were voting on measures to force city workers to pay more for their pensions, San Diego and San Jose. In San Jose, Democratic mayor Chuck Reed took on the unions.
Mayor Reed pushed for a new law requiring workers to pay more for their pensions. He estimates that in the first year the measure would save the city about $25 million a year, but would eventually save billions in the long run. It passed resoundingly, but the unions have now brought suit seeing it as anti-union.
As a Democrat, a party that traditionally has supported organized labor, Reed had to weigh the political consequences of his decision.
"I think this is a choice that is very difficult for Democrats to make,' Reed tells Lyden. "But it is a choice between providing services to the people or providing benefits to our employees.
It's a choice Mayor Reed says all Democrats will be faced with as they deal with rising pension costs across the country.
The Road Ahead
The way forward is difficult for cities and unions. Central Falls, Rhode Island, a city in bankruptcy, got the state help to pay pensions owed to police and fire retirees, who were losing as much as 55 percent of their benefits the next four years.
Harold Meyerson says it might be hard for people to have sympathy for union workers, even in public sector jobs.
"It's a real problem since most private sector workers have lost pensions of yore and have 401ks or nothing," he says, "and they're asked to support others."
One thing that is certain is that both public sector and private unions will continue to be a topic for politicians during the next five months as we head toward a tumultuous Election Day.
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