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Shrinking labor unions flex their muscles

Commentary:

Most of our national holidays are a celebration of people and events that seem far removed. Labor Day is for us; the American worker. Our summers are bookended by three-day weekends. Memorial Day demands that we somberly remember those who died in war. Labor Day makes no demands.

But we should be aware of its history. Along with celebrating workers, the holiday also recognizes the contributions made by labor unions in response to the robber barons of the 19th century who amassed obscene levels of wealth at the expense of workers.

President Grover Cleveland made it a national holiday in 1894, just as a violent and costly strike by the American Railway Union was taking place against the Pullman company. The railroad boycott of 1894 lasted for 10 weeks, crippling the nation’s ability to move people and freight. It ended when Cleveland sent in the Army to break up the strike.

President Joe Biden didn’t call out the Army, but he did use the power of the federal government in 2022 to impose a deal on railroad workers that had been hammered out in the Senate. It’s estimated that a strike would have stopped 30 percent of all U.S. cargo shipments, costing up to $2 million a day.

This year, UPS and the Teamsters Union reached agreement on a deal to avert a strike that would have been the costliest ever to our economy, according to a report by the Anderson Economic Group. A 10-day strike would have taken more than $7 billion from our economy, with consumers absorbing $4.6 billion of that.

But, as anyone who watches TV or goes to movies knows, not all strikes have been averted. The writer’s guild has been on strike since May, and the actors joined them in August, bringing a halt to new production of TV shows and movies.

They aren’t the only ones walking the picket line. More than 200 strikes have been called this year, involving more than 320,000 workers, according to the Cornell ILR School Labor Action Tracker. That’s a huge increase from the 27,000 workers estimated to have been on strike during the same period last year.

Clearly, labor unions are flexing their muscles. But every year, a smaller percentage of workers belong to a union. That’s especially true for those in the private sector.

Membership is down from 10.3 percent in 2021 to 10.1 percent last year, making it the lowest on record, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The percentage of union workers has nearly been cut in half since 1983, when 20.1 percent were represented. And it’s been dropping faster than that in the private sector.

Government employees now make up one third of all union members. Law enforcement officers, firefighters, teachers and library employees have the highest percentages of union workers. Those workers earn, on average, 15 percent more than workers not in a union.

Without a union, workers have only the government to protect them. In New Mexico, that means a minimum wage of at least $12 an hour. Fifty miles to the east in Texas, the minimum wage is still at $7.25, where it’s been since 2009. In Iowa, a new law allows 14-year-olds to work in slaughterhouses.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com. Walter Rubel's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of KRWG Public Media or NMSU.