Economic Progress

Why America needs to strengthen its unions

Robert Reich
Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley
Share:
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Economic Progress?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Economic Progress is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Economic Progress

One big reason America was far more equal in the 1950s and 1960s than now is unions were stronger then. That gave workers bargaining power to get a fair share of the economy’s gains – and unions helped improve wages and working conditions for everyone.

But as union membership has weakened – from more than a third of all private-sector workers belonging unions in the 1950s to fewer than 7 percent today – the bargaining power of average workers has all but disappeared.

In fact, the decline of the American middle class mirrors almost exactly the decline of American labor union membership.

So how do we strengthen unions?

First, make it easier to form a union, with a simple majority of workers voting up or down.

Right now, long delays and procedural hurdles give big employers plenty of time to whip up campaigns against unions, even threatening they’ll close down and move somewhere else if a union is voted in.

Second, build in real penalties on companies that violate labor laws by firing workers who try to organize a union or intimidating others.

These moves are illegal, but nowadays the worst that can happen is employers get slapped on the wrist. If found guilty they have to repay lost wages to the workers they fire. Some employers treat this as a cost of doing business. That must be stopped.  Penalties should be large enough to stop this illegality.

Finally – this one has been in the news lately, and if you only remember one thing, remember this: We must enact a federal law that pre-empts so-called state “right-to-work” laws.

Don’t be fooled by the “right to work” name. These laws allow workers to get all the benefits of having a union without paying union dues. It’s a back door destroying unions. If no one pays dues, unions have no way to provide any union benefits. And that means lower wages.

In fact, wages in right-to-work states are lower on average than wages in non-right-to-work states, by an average of about $1500 a year. Workers in right-to-work states are also less likely to have employer-sponsored health insurance and pension coverage.

When unions are weakened by right-to-work laws, all of a state’s workers are hurt.

American workers need a union to bargain on their behalf. Low-wage workers in big-box retail stores and fast-food chains need a union even more.

If we want average Americans to get a fair share of the gains from economic growth, they need to be able to unionize.

This article is published in collaboration with RobertReich.org. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

To keep up with the Agenda subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Author: Robert Reich is a Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies.

Image: Coal mining boots are shown above miners’ lockers before the start of an afternoon shift at a coal mine near Gilbert, West Virginia. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

 

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Economic ProgressFuture of Work
Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

The latest from the IMF on the global economy, and other economics stories to read

Joe Myers

April 12, 2024

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum