On Labor Day: Celebrating America’s Workforce

By The Policy Circle Team

The Labor Day holiday is a time to celebrate and recognize the important contributions American workers make to the country’s economic prosperity. It’s also a day to reflect on the changing dynamics for U.S. workers. The landscape for workers in America has changed dramatically since the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, challenging the very nature of organized labor. 

Though they often served as excellent mediation institutions and a way to protect workers, unions are no longer as vital to the success of our workers, fair wages or safety as they used to be. They do play a role in some communities to strengthen workers’ aggregate power when negotiating wages, salary increases and benefits. But in today’s advanced workforce, fewer workers feel a need for a union to represent them.

Take a recent study on the American Worker that examined Americans’ feelings about their jobs overall – their general job satisfaction, how that compares to satisfaction with other aspects of their lives, whether people want a different job than the one they currently have, and what their job means to them: 

  • Job satisfaction is high and stable. Twenty-five years ago, when Gallup first asked employed adults about their jobs, 87 percent were satisfied. When Gallup asked the identical question in 2017, 92 percent were satisfied. In the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey, 85 percent were satisfied with the work they did in 1972; in 2016, a virtually identical 88 percent were. 
  • Work means more than just a paycheck. When Pew asked working adults in a 2016 survey which of two different ways of looking at one’s job best described how they felt, 57 percent said their job provided them a sense of identity, compared to 40 percent who said their job was just what they did for a living. Large majorities of Americans (70 percent in NORC’s 2016 General Social Survey) say they would enjoy having a paying job even if they didn’t need the money. Income and benefits clearly matter, but when people are asked about what they consider important in a job, non monetary factors like having an interesting job and being able to make a contribution to society rank above high income

State of the American Union 

Union membership and power peaked in the 1970’s, after which private sector union membership began its steady decline. Meanwhile, membership in public sector unions has experienced a steady increase. In 1983, 17.7 million Americans, worked in unionized workplaces. Those numbers declined to 14.7 million in 2018, according to data the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began publishing that year. From Mark J. Perry at the American Enterprise Institute: 

“A century ago, unions played an important role in the labor movement by boosting workers’ wages, improving working conditions and giving workers a voice in the workplace. Unions were relevant then because organized labor provided a platform by which workers could better negotiate these issues with employers. But unions are increasingly unable to address the challenges that workers face in the 21st century.” 

As private sector union membership declines, dwindling membership and dues is a concern for union leadership. Even in states with a historic union stronghold – like Michigan – right-to-work laws have led to a significant decline in membership in the largest unions. 

The right-to-work debate: Who has to pay union dues?

In right-to-work states, “Labor unions still operate… but workers cannot be compelled to become members as a requirement of their job.” And, in these states, non-union members are not required to pay union dues. As of today, 27 states and Guam have adopted right-to-work laws. At the heart of the debate is this question, should unions collect fair share “fees from those who don’t join the union but benefit from a contract that covers them”? Over the years, the debate around these “fair share” mandatory union dues has found its way to the Supreme Court.

Janus v. AFSCME was a landmark case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court concerning the power of labor unions to collect fees from non-union members. It was filed by the Illinois-based Liberty Justice Center and the Washington, D.C.-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation on behalf of Mark Janus, an Illinois state employee and argued for providing right-to-work protection for all public employees in the country and allowing public workers to opt out of their union without needing to renew their objection every year.

Currently, many unions require members who opt out to redo the paperwork each year in order to refrain from paying for union politics.On June 27, 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5–4 decision that the application of public sector union fees to non-members is a violation of the First Amendment, ruling against AFSCME. Justice Alito wrote for the Court, joined by Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas, and Gorsuch. Alito wrote that agency-shop agreements violate “the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.” Alito recognized that losing these fees would put a financial burden on the public sector unions, who would continue to have to represent nonmembers even without their agency fees, but stated that “we must weigh these disadvantages against the considerable windfall that unions have received.” In the decision, the Court held that the conclusion reached by Abood was inconsistent with the First Amendment and thus overruled that decision.

Though in states like  Missouri and West Virginia, those right-to-work laws have recently been overturned by the state’s Governor and legislatures. Back to Michigan for a case study example: Since passing right-to-work in 2012, Michigan has added more than 430,000 new jobs, a 10 percent gain. The state’s neighbor, Ohio, a non-right-to-work state with a population roughly 17 percent higher, added only about half as many new jobs (218,000) during this same time period. 

There have also been recommendations building off of the Janus decision suggesting that the burden should not be on public employees to leave the union—the burden should be on the unions to recruit their own members. In other words, an “opt-in” default rather than the current “opt-out” policy. Just this week, Alaska’s Attorney General released a formal opinion arguing that the state is not in compliance with Janus, concluding that requiring public employees to opt-out of paying union dues is a violation of First Amendment free speech protections, and that the state should oversee the process of negotiating union dues. 

So what can you do?

Marking the holiday with one last barbecue is a good opportunity to start up a conversation with your friends and neighbors about today’s workforce and the role of unions. Unsure about what to ask or where to go for more information? Consider these questions: 

  1. Is your state a right to work state? Find out.
  2. Are you or a friend/family member interested in opting out? Find out how.  
  3. What’s the union representation in your state? Find out
  4. What unions are local to me and my community? Learn here
  5. What is their budget and how much do they spend on political campaigns? 

Want to know more? Check out our Janus vs. AFSCME  deep dive.

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