Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. 99¢ for 4 weeks.

If not unions, then what?

ElectionsColleges and UniversitiesUnionsHuman Rights WatchHealth Care Reform (2009)

You wouldn't know it from our nation's debate over Obamacare, but the U.S. has had government-supported health care for nearly 80 years. Not only that, but our nation bolsters a retirement level well beyond the thin safety net provided by Social Security, and it even ensures Americans a path to a family-supporting wage. And, no, I have not mistaken the U.S. for a socialist European nation.

Our government assures us these broad economic benefits by guaranteeing our right to form a labor union. Those among us who join a union — or who get a job with a company that matches the higher wages and benefits offered by its unionized competitors — effectively win a more robust social safety net through government-sanctioned collective bargaining. Thus, the U.S. has long relied on unions to do the kind of economic redistribution work which is shouldered by governments in other nations.

However, our nation is about to lose this leveling tool. We learned this month that the nation's rate of unionization is at a 93-year low. Only 11.3 percent of America's workers belong to a union, including a mere 6.6 percent of private-sector workers. In Maryland, union membership used to be above the national average, but in 2012 it fell below average to 10.6 percent. Much of the media coverage around this drop in union membership asks what this means for labor's future. The larger question, however, is what it means for America's future — how will our nation temper the inequities of today's new, global economy if we can no longer rely on unions to do that work for us?

Unions have long served as economic equalizers. From 1947 to 1972, the U.S. economy was the undisputed economic world leader, and our nation used unions to ensure that we spread that wealth around. Once union membership started falling, the income divide grew. Since 1973 the drop in union membership accounts for a full third of the growth of wage inequality among men, according to a recent study by scholars at Harvard and the University of Washington. Today, the income gap is larger than anything we've seen since before the Great Depression.

In fact, it was during the Great Depression that our nation struck a grand compromise to finally soften for its citizens the harshness of industrial capitalism. It was a bargain that had been in the works since the late 19th century, and we hammered out the details throughout the post-World War II period. America's citizens never got the kinds of universal health care programs, job insurance or wage guarantees that benefited European workers. Instead, we won very basic economic security through Social Security and, eventually, Medicare. Plus we won the government's assurance that if we voted in a union election, the government would give legal backing to our efforts to win greater economic security from our employers.

However, too few of us were ever able to grab onto this economic life boat. It turns out that it is difficult to form a union, and employers have shrewdly upped their resistance over the decades. Employers routinely fire, harass and threaten workers who want to form unions, and U.S. labor law is too weak to stop them, according to Kate Bronfenbrenner at Cornell University. In fact, in 2000 Human Rights Watch declared that U.S. workers have effectively lost the freedom to form a union. However, labor law reform does not seem to be in the Obama administration forecast for the second term.

So, if not unions, then what's the new plan? What's the new institutional framework we will use to balance people's needs with those of corporations? If we're going to effectively scrap our nation's method of broad economic redistribution, what will we replace it with? A near 100-year low in unionization rates isn't just labor's problem. It's a problem for anyone who does not want to see U.S. economic inequality shred our nation's social fabric.

Lane Windham is a PhD candidate in U.S. History at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her email is

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts
  • Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
    Related Content
    ElectionsColleges and UniversitiesUnionsHuman Rights WatchHealth Care Reform (2009)
    • Unions are not the answer
      Unions are not the answer

      I take issue with much of Lane Windham's recent commentary ("If not labor unions, then what?" Jan. 29) beginning with the fundamental premise that it was the unions that provided us with economic redistribution. Like many other academicians, Ms. Windham confuses correlation...

    • JLENS: securing our coast
      JLENS: securing our coast

      This Christmas, the United States Army will deliver a spectacular present to Harford and Baltimore counties. A pair of big white blimps will be flying two miles above Aberdeen Proving Ground — unless Congress balks.

    • True news has substance

      Someone recently told me that she watches the news on TV every night. Her news broadcast of choice: "Entertainment Tonight."

    • Remembering Frank Mankiewicz
      Remembering Frank Mankiewicz

      In the hard-boiled if fading world of print journalism, it's often said that the only way to look at a politician is down. And the worst crime of all is to work both sides of the street, doubling as a reporter while working for a pol, or vice versa.

    • A hard report to swallow
      A hard report to swallow

      We can understand the possibility that the Baltimore state's attorney's office concluded, after examining the evidence, that it did not have a criminal case against two city police officers who repeatedly struck a patient at MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital with a Taser last May. But...

    • Repeating our Middle East mistakes
      Repeating our Middle East mistakes

      President Barack Obama's latest foray into the Middle East is unfortunately reactive and uninformed and shows how very little he seems to take into account our bloody history in the region.

    • Democrats run the economy better
      Democrats run the economy better

      There are many reasons to be a Democrat — civil rights, environmental protection, protecting national security without being the world's policeman, and more. Yet, the Democratic Party's strongest advantage over our Republican opponents is that Democrats run the economy far...

    • A message to the netherworld
      A message to the netherworld

      Blessed with an appetite for good Italian sausage served with peppers and onions, as well as an abundant curiosity, I took myself to The Great Halloween Lantern Parade and Festival last Saturday night without knowing quite what to expect. The only person I'd ever met who had seen the...