AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Why are unions still relevant?

With the shift to the right of the American political mainstream and the decline of union influence, unions are treated by the mainstream media as having lost their relevance.

A prominent 2011 Fox News article “Why Unions Are Harmful to Workerspublished on the topic, for instance, dubiously claims that “Unions help ship a lot of would be American jobs overseas” a claim that disingenuously ignores the fact that over half of states now have “right-to-work” laws that effectively make it impossible for unions to collect dues let alone organize.

In other words certain aspects of the mainstream U.S. media are falsely implying that unions are a central cause behind the outsourcing of jobs in the U.S.

The American mainstream media neglects to highlight the role of corporate backed laws that make it difficult to unionize including the above mentioned “right-to-work” legislation now passed in about half of U.S. states.

In other words the American mainstream media is paying attention to only half the picture — it is acknowledging the frailty of union power in the 21st century without addressing the fact that corporations are in fact among the leading cause behind the decline of union political influence.

But union influence has also been curtailed by indirect corporate jockeying including the outsourcing of historic unionized industries like manufacturing, the rise of automation and of course the growth of contract-based jobs.

Research also suggests that the decline of unions is directly influencing growing income inequality.

The decline of union power has thus had the mixed legacy of expanding the job market while at the same time reinforcing wage inequality.

In other words the job market in the U.S. has never been so good but many of these jobs are low-skilled and pay very poorly.

To fill in the gap caused by declining union power, well-intentioned progressive-politicians have attempted somewhat successfully to push for higher minimum wages in an attempt to help workers who have otherwise lost their chief vehicle to lobby their employers for better pay.

Minimum wage increases aside, however, it is unlikely that governmental mandated legislation will prove an effective salve for the continued decline of union influence.

Unions are formed so that workers can have some influence not only over their own wages, hours, and working conditions, but they also provide a means to influence their employer in terms of the many other problems that arise between worker and employer which cannot necessarily be addressed by legislation.

Unions not only set educational standards, skill levels, wages, but they also establish better working conditions as well as providing for wages and benefits generally superior to that which non-union workers receive.

Additionally, most union contracts provide far more protections than state and federal laws.

For instance, in most states there is no legal right for workers to take a break.

Unions also protect workers from being fired-at-will when an employer exercises “employment at will” under which terms non-union workers could be fired without justification.

Furthermore, unions are able to exercise political influence — their most important contribution to society as a whole — given that their own political lobbying not only brings about positive changes like better working conditions for all workers but also counterbalances corporate power which by its very nature values its own profits margins over the quality of life of its employees.

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