Unions and the Middle Class
An essay by Eric Fulton
Strong unions correlate with a safe and strong middle class. There is a wide range of income that is considered middle class. In 2014, middle class income was between $42,000 and $125.000 for a family of three in the United States (Pew Research Center, 2016). Labor unions are groups of workers who band together to fight for and maintain each other's interests, by negotiating with companies and employers.
As union membership among workers increases and decreases, the size of the middle class changes respectively. When fewer workers are in unions, it drives wages down for everybody, because unions negotiate wages, and companies need to compete with each other in the job market. In 1968, 24.9 percent of workers in the United States were in some form of union (Mayer, 2004), and in that year 53.2 percent of the United States total income was made by the middle class (Madland, Miller, 2013). Union membership has since steadily declined, with union membership among workers dropping to 20.4 percent in 1978, and 12.3 percent in 1998 (Mayer, 2004). In 2012, only 11.8 percent of workers were union (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013), and in that same year, 45.7 percent of income in the United States was earned by the middle 60 percent of households (Madland, Miller, 2013). So in the span of 44 years, from 1968 to 2012, union membership dropped from 24.9 percent down to 11.8 percent, and the total percent of income earned by the middle class in the United States fell from 53.2 percent to 45.7 percent. This shows a clear correlation between union membership and a strong middle class.
When the middle class of the United States is weak, the entire country is weak. Income inequality contributed to the recession in 2008 (Tankersley, 2012). The existence of median household incomes has virtually disappeared in the last few decades (Tankersley, 2012). The disappearance of the middle class will lead to deteriorating infrastructure, poor graduation rates out of public schools, and a weaker economy with less money in circulation (Tankersley, 2012).
Unions, being comprised mainly of workers themselves, are naturally concerned with worker safety, more so than the companies they work with. This means that in order for workers to have safe working conditions, they will often need their union to help achieve that goal. I spoke with my father about his experiences being in a union, as it relates to safety. He said that, as a union member, one thing that he appreciates most is his ability to question the safety of certain tasks, or refuse until the task is deemed safe, without fear of repercussion from his employer. He has personally experienced the ability of the union to modify procedures and common practices to create a much safer workplace. Following an incident in 1998 wherein six workers lost their lives on a de-coker unit. The union helped negotiate, along with Washington State, to improve procedures, recognize hazards, and require that the workers on that structure were represented by the union. Had the employees on the structure, on that day in 1998 been union members, it is possible that they would have voiced their concerns and the incident may have been avoided.
Unions of all types are concerned with worker safety, a friend of our family teaches high school for students with Emotional Behavior Disorders, according to her union contract there are only so many students that are to be in one class at any given time, the school district had placed nearly twice that amount. This creates an unsafe situation wherein too many students with issues of aggression and maladaptive social behaviors, without enough staff on hand, may result in a violent situation, After attempting to speak to the district about the issue three of four times with no resolution to the issue, she contacted her union representative. The union stepped in and within two weeks the safety issue was resolved.
The health of the union is vital to our country's success, both for the economy and for workers safety. The strength of the middle class depends on the strength of labor unions. When workers earn reliable wages, feel safe on the job, and are secure in their employment, the entire country benefits.
"America's Shrinking Middle Class: A Close Look at Changes Within Metropolitan Areas". Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 11 May 2016. Accessed Feb. 2018.
Madland, David, and Keith Miller. "Latest Census Data Underscore How Important Unions Are for the Middle Class." Center for American Progress Action Fund, Center for American Progress Action Fund, 17 Sept. 2013. Accessed 25 Feb. 2018.
Mayer, Gerald. "Union Membership Trends in the United States." Cornell University ILR School, 31 Aug. 2004. Accessed 25 Feb. 2018.
Tankersley, Jim. "The 100% Economy: Why the U.S. Needs a Strong Middle Class to Thrive." The Atlantic, The Atlantic, 18 May 2012. Accessed 25 Feb. 2018.
"Union Members-2012." Bureau of Labor Statistics U.S. Department of Labor, 23 Jan. 2013. Accessed 25 Feb. 2018.