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Tough Economy? Join a Union

Join me in welcoming Amy M. Traub, director of Research at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy.

President Bush seems to have discovered that the economy is turning sour just in time for his State of the Union address. But for current and aspiring middle-class Americans, things have been tough for some time. In 2007, prices rose faster than wages, with the cost of essentials like health care and gas soaring particularly high. People tried various means to make ends meet: credit card debt went up. Consumer bankruptcy filings escalated. Some working people even did something really crazy: They joined unions.

On Friday, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released numbers showing the first increase in the share of workers represented by unions since they started collecting data in 1983. The increase, from 12 percent of the nation’s workforce in 2006 to 12.1 percent in 2007 is so tiny that it may be a statistical anomaly. But the point remains: in 2007, there were 311,000 more union members in the United States than the year before.

As an economic survival strategy, unionization is a winner. The evidence suggests that those who managed to join unions got through 2007 in better economic shape than those who didn’t: in virtually any sector you care to look at, union members made more than their nonunion counterparts. In the private sector as a whole, union members took home an average of $167 more every week than those without the benefit of a union contract. Union members also were much more likely to have employer-provided health insurance, to pay a lower share of the premiums for it and to have other benefits from life insurance to paid leave.

The problem is that it’s a hell of a lot harder than it should be to exercise the right to join a union. The process is fraught with intimidation. One fifth of workers attempting to organize can expect to be illegally fired in retaliation for trying to join a union, according to the Center for Economic Policy Research. Those who don’t actually lose their jobs are still likely to face illegal harassment. And the Bush-appointed National Labor Relations Board continuously comes up with new ways to restrict workers’ rights and make it harder to organize.

But in 2007, hundreds of thousands of workers were up to the challenge (more than just the 311,000 net increase because many union jobs were lost as well). Now imagine if working people could actually join a union just because they and a majority of their co-workers wanted to. That’s right: This is another pitch for the Employee Free Choice Act. Tough economic times demand it.

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