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  1. Opinion

Column: Labor unions are alive and well

Published Sep. 2, 2016

The Labor Day holiday was unanimously approved by Congress in 1894 to recognize and celebrate the victories and contributions of the American labor movement. Unfortunately, and ironically, the holiday designated to celebrate America's labor unions is also used by big business special interests and their supporters to denigrate those unions.

This was certainly the case in a recent column by Tampa Bay Times correspondent Chris Ingram. He argued that the decline in the percentage of workers represented by unions since 1983 is due to a loss of "American workers' appetite for membership in such organizations." He then claimed that this apparent loss of appetite resulted when "labor unions and their fat-cat bosses got greedy" in fighting for higher wages for their members. Aside from the twisted logic that workers got fed up with unions because unions secured them higher wages, several key components of his overall argument do not hold water.

The core of the argument is that the decline of union membership has been caused by a lack of need or interest by American workers. In reality, the main factor in declining union density has been the rapid neoliberal globalization of the world economy and the massive offshoring of manufacturing and other job sectors that were the most highly unionized. Much of the manufacturing and other types of heavily unionized work that stayed in the United States have been automated, also reducing the numbers.

More importantly, while union density is lower than it was in 1983, a closer look at Bureau of Labor Statistics data clearly indicates that unions are rebounding. The actual number of union workers has risen steadily since 2012, even in right-to-work states like Florida, where both union membership and density have increased since 2013.

A review of the news over the past few months clearly illustrates this. In August, workers at the Lakeland Ledger voted overwhelmingly to unionize, and workers at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune may soon follow suit. In the public sector, Tallahassee Community College faculty also overwhelmingly voted for collective bargaining, and the State College of Florida, Florida Polytechnic University and St. Petersburg College have filed to unionize. In May, teachers voted to unionize in Calhoun County, the only county that hadn't been unionized since Floridians' constitutional right to collectively bargain began four decades ago.

The rallying cry of the Fight for 15 movement that has engaged hundreds of thousands in raising the plight of fast-food and other low-wage workers is "15 dollars an hour and a UNION." In a 2007 survey of workers, the Economic Policy Institute found that the proportion of workers wanting a union had risen substantially over the past decade and that a majority of nonunion workers would vote for a union if given the chance.

The labor movement is growing again and for good reason: The new economy driven by the "free-market" approaches conservatives celebrate is leaving millions of workers behind as the real "fat cats," the big corporate CEOs, bankers and Wall Street execs, gobble up an increasingly disproportionate share of the nation's wealth. As worker productivity has risen since the 1970s, real wages have remained stagnant.

The worsening situation for workers doesn't end with wages. Retirement security has diminished; health care costs continue to increase; leisure time is lost; and workers across the economy feel more like tools than human beings. Work life for union members is better.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2015 union workers earned an average of 21 percent more than their nonunion counterparts, and that figure rises to 24 percent for women and even higher for African-American and Latino workers. Union workers are more likely to have health insurance, a secure retirement and paid sick leave than nonunion workers.

How much do unions have to grow or how many successes will they need to have before big business-backed free marketeers will stop trotting out union density figures to proclaim the death of organized labor during the holiday established to celebrate the contributions of union workers? When they do, take heart in the fact that union workers are fighting to bring more people the benefits of a collective voice on the job with the ultimate goal of building a new economy that works for everyone, not just those financing those who are falsely singing the death knell.

The labor movement is not past any prime; rather, it is on the cusp of its next chapter: rebuilding the middle class and the American economy after the failures of crony capitalism and so-called free-market economics.

Rich Templin is the legislative and political director of the Florida AFL-CIO, the largest labor federation in the state, representing over 500 local labor unions and labor councils and over a million workers, retirees and their families in Florida.

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