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Originally published Saturday, April 19, 2014 at 3:34 PM

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Guest: The decline of labor unions and the rise of the minimum wage

Against this historic downturn, labor is working on re-establishing itself in Seattle, leading a campaign to raise the minimum wage, writes guest columnist Jake Rosenfeld.

Special to The Times

Author event

Jake Rosenfeld will talk about “What Unions No Longer Do” at a Town Hall Seattle event at 6 p.m. Monday. Advance tickets are sold out, but $5 stand-by tickets will be sold at the door.


IN February, a bitterly divided local Machinists union at Boeing narrowly voted to accept the company’s contract extension to build new 777X airplanes. Despite record profits for the firm, the new contract called for significant increases in workers’ health-care contributions, a radical revamping of the pension plan and modest wage increases for the next decade.

The Boeing dispute serves as a stark reminder of organized labor’s broader plight.

In today’s America, there is nothing big about labor. The unionization rate has dropped to levels last seen a century ago — a time when labor did not have the right to collective bargaining.

At the labor movement’s peak in the middle of the 20th century, more than one out of three workers in the private sector belonged to a union. Today the ratio is roughly one in 20.

Against this historic downturn, labor is working on re-establishing itself in Seattle, leading a campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and providing organizational and financial support for fast-food-worker protests across the city.

Could these efforts herald a labor revival?

It doesn’t look like it at Boeing. Thousands of local Machinists will now work under a contract increasingly similar to that of their nonunion counterparts — one that shifts greater risk from the company to the workers. The contract severs the connection between the success of the company’s shareholders and executives from the success of the thousands of workers on the assembly lines.

Yet the Machinists at Boeing still command decent salaries and benefit packages that are far more generous than what millions of nonunion workers enjoy.

Why should other struggling workers care about Boeing workers’ plight? Because unions’ ability to raise the living standards of nonunion workers extends well beyond minimum wage and the fast-food industry. Strong unions can benefit nonunion workers even when they’re simply pursuing their own self-interest.

In the late 1940s, the labor movement had successfully organized key segments of the nation’s fast-growing economy, including major industries such as auto and steel. With that high level of density, many industry-leading companies were unionized. Unorganized firms often matched the pay scales and benefit packages of their unionized competitors.

They did so for two main reasons. First, employers at union-free workplaces who wanted to stay that way would often model their compensation on what their unionized competitors offered in order to keep their employees happy and thus unlikely to support an organizing drive.

Second, employers often followed the practices of the most successful companies in their industry, as they do now. When many of these successful firms were organized, they established pay and benefit norms adopted by competitors eager to follow the leader. In this way, unions at the Boeings of the world once raised compensation across entire industries.

Now it’s the reverse. Nonunion companies increasingly serve as the benchmark for the few remaining unionized companies, lowering compensation across entire industries. And many industries have no organized worker presence at all.

A consequence of organized labor’s decline is that many Americans now consider it a marginal or special-interest issue, disconnected from their own lives. The recent fights in the Greater Seattle region should make it clear labor unions are critical organizations in the struggle against rising inequality.

Whether fighting for economic justice for low-income, nonunion workers or seeking generous contracts for their own members, unions at their best work to raise the living standards for the vast majority of working Americans.

It is hard to imagine the minimum-wage campaign succeeding in Seattle without the backing of organized labor. It would be hard to imagine a reversal of rising economic disparities across the nation absent a revitalized labor movement.

What unites the SeaTac ballot initiative, Seattle’s 15 Now campaign and the fast-food-worker protests is an active and still-powerful local labor movement that, in coalition with a range of other progressive forces, is fighting to counteract the decades-long rise in economic inequality.

In each case, unions are using their resources to support nonunion workers. This is not new. Historically, many unions have played a vital role in supporting the most vulnerable among us, despite the fact that very few union members were then, or are now, themselves poor.

There are no easy solutions for restoring an economy that delivers broad-based prosperity. Yet we shouldn’t be fatalistic about our current economic predicament or the continuing demise of organized labor.

Business leaders and politicians like to say that recent technological changes and globalization have rendered organized labor’s death inevitable. This does not account for the enormous variation we see among the developed nations in terms of the role of unions in the economy and polity.

Scandinavian nations hum along with organization rates well over 50 percent. Our neighbor to the north, Canada, has a unionization rate nearly three times our own.

The data show that strong labor movements correspond with lower levels of inequality and greater protections for society’s most vulnerable populations. If there is anything inevitable about labor’s drastically weakened position, it is our current state of extraordinarily high inequality.

Jake Rosenfeld is associate professor of sociology at the University of Washington, and author of “What Unions No Longer Do” published by Harvard University Press in 2014.

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