President Trump took to Twitter on Labor Day to attack AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, slamming him for his criticism of Trump’s trade deals. The AFL-CIO is the country’s largest coalition of more than 50 major unions and represents some 12.5 million American workers, from pilots to teachers.
In his tweet, Trump claimed that union workers would not only vote for him in 2020, but should dump their unions and stop paying “exorbitant” fees.
But even before Trump lashed out at Trumka, labor unions have been under attack in the United States from conservative politicians and employers alike. “Working people have been thwarted” in their attempts to unionize and collectively bargain, says a new report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).
“It’s been a decades-long attack on working people,” said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler. “It’s been a slow decline from our peak in the 70’s — it’s been trailing off year after year primarily because of our broken labor laws.”
“It’s been a multifaceted attack because most of the people in power don’t want to see working people have a slice of that power. We are the last institution left standing to bring the collective strength of working people together to fight back,” she said.
Since 1979, union representation of workers has dropped by more than half from 27% to under 12% in 2017. Last year, union representation was under 11%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The union declines are viewed negatively, according to a Pew Research poll. Just over half of Americans believe that the decline in union representation is bad for working people.
Shuler says she’s encouraged, however, by the number of people taking collective action, pointing out that the majority that have joined unions in recent years are young.
“In 2018, half a million people walked picket lines,” she said. “We are heartened by that because workers are ready to take risks. They are tired of seeing what they’re seeing in the economy, and tired of feeling powerless.”
And despite the declines, a majority of American workers would hold union elections if offered the chance. Interest in collective bargaining has remained little changed since the 70’s, standing at 60%, according to the EPI report. This means that five times as many workers want to participate as are actually represented by a labor union in their office. Currently, union approval ratings are 64%, nearly a 50-year high.
Despite the law prohibiting employers from retaliating against workers who try to unionize, the EPI report states that more than 1 in 7 union organizers and activists are “illegally fired” when attempting to start a union at their place of business. But even without retaliation in the workplace, unions face an uphill battle legislatively to protect collective bargaining rights.
There are 27 states that have “right-to-work” laws on the books; these laws make it illegal for unions to require nonunion members to pay “fair share fees” to cover the basic costs of representing employees in the workplace, as fair representation laws require unions to ”represent all employees – whether members of the union or not –fairly, in good faith, and without discrimination.” Legislation like this limits a union’s ability to collect the fees they need to continue representing workers.
But Shuler said this isn’t the only “anti-union” pressure facing unions today.
“You’ve got the private sector bearing down on us hiring union-busting consultants. I’ve witnessed captive audience meetings where they are preaching against the unions,” she said.
And then there is the president’s attacks themselves. In addition to his tweets, he used executive orders to limit civil service protections. The orders limited the amount of time federal employees could spend doing union business, required agencies to negotiate union contracts in less than a year, and also required agencies to charge unions for federal space that they previously used for free.
The decline in unions comes at a time when wealth inequality has increased. According to Pew Research, by 2016 people in the top 10th of income distribution earned roughly 9 times more than those in the bottom 10th.
Last year, Princeton University researchers found that there is a link between the decline of unions and the rise in income inequality.
“Among the study’s findings were that unions consistently have provided workers with a 10% to 20% wage boost over their non-union counterparts over the past eight decades,” a release on the report noted. “The researchers also discovered that when unions have expanded, whether at the national or state level, they tended to draw in more unskilled workers and raise their relative wages, with significant impacts on inequality.”
And according to the BLS, non-union workers earn 82% of what their union counterparts make — $860 vs. $1,051 a week.
But as union worker numbers decline, the future for unions remains unclear. In May, new bill was introduced in Congress, designed to amend the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Called the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), the bill will repeal right-to-work laws and would allow employees to sue employers for illegally interfering with their organizing efforts.
Union voters in 2020
Trump says that workers will vote for him, thanks to low unemployment and the “most jobs ever.” Shuler disagrees.
“They didn’t [vote for him] last time and he’s done nothing to change their minds,” she said. “There is a perception that union workers voted him into office and that isn’t true.”
Democratic candidates have already begun to court the workers vote: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have been seen on picket lines for cashiers while Julian Castro marched with McDonald’s workers in North Carolina. Many of the Democratic frontrunners support the PRO Act, and other labor reforms.
Shuler said she hopes to make union voters some of the “most informed” ahead of the elections, and stressed the future of work “runs right through the labor union.”
“A labor movement is going to be the way forward,” she said.
Kristin Myers is a reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.