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A LEGISLATURE SHOWS CONGRESS HOW
A LEGISLATURE SHOWS CONGRESS HOW
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Don't be misled by the continuing decline in the proportion of U.S. workers who belong to unions. Unionized workers are still doing a whole lot better -- economically, politically and socially. Whatever their gender, race or occupation, union membership gives workers a big advantage over their non-union counterparts.

But though union membership grew last year by 213,000 to 15.7 million, the total nevertheless was only 12.5 percent of the nation's workforce. Overall, that was labor's smallest share in more than 60 years.

The proportion of unionized workers in private employment dropped to a 100-year-low of 7.9 percent. The figure for unionized public employees also declined, but to a much higher level of more than 36 percent.

The figures shouldn't be surprising, considering today's economy. Employers have cut or outsourced thousands of jobs, white collar and blue collar alike, manufacturing as well as service work. They've closed plants and other facilities. They've demanded -- and gotten -- major concessions from unions.

What's worse for unions, they also must cope with the woefully lax enforcement of the laws that supposedly guarantee workers the right of unionization, and loopholes in the laws that allow employers to engage in flagrant union-busting.

Employers openly fire or otherwise penalize union sympathizers during organizing campaigns. They force employees to attend meetings at which they rail against unions, often claiming a union victory would lead to pay cuts, layoffs and other serious consequences. Even when workers nevertheless vote for union representation, some employers avoid negotiating contracts with the winning union by challenging the election results or by simply refusing to negotiate.

There's only one sure way to deal with such tactics - to strike. But many workers have in effect been denied that right as well, because the law allows employers to replace strikers.

It's impossible to believe, at any rate, that workers given access to the facts about the advantages of union membership and given an unrestricted right to choose would opt for anything except unionization.

The most recent government figures show that in 2005 the median weekly pay of unionized workers generally -- $801 -- was almost 30 percent higher than the $622 reported for non-union workers. That's a difference of $179 a week or more than $9,300 a year.

The $857-a-week median of male union members -- 24 percent more than the $692 for male non-members -- was the highest among particular groups of workers. But though they drew less pay, women and African Americans and Latinos generally had an even greater advantage.

The edge for women was 30 percent -- $726 to $559. It also was 30 percent -- $653 to $500 -- for African American unionists. For Latinos it was 47 percent -- $661 to $449.

Within occupational groups, unionized construction workers, for instance, averaged almost $350 a week more than non-union workers in their field. The advantage for unionized local government employees was $225.

Pay is only part of it. Union members are usually guaranteed employer-financed health insurance, pensions, paid holidays and vacations, sick leave and other fringe benefits that many non-members lack.

For example, more than 80 percent of unionized workers have health insurance and retirement plans financed wholly or in large part by their employers, whereas fewer than half of non-union workers have such coverage.

Union members also are assured a greater voice in political affairs and community activities, given organized labor's prominence in such matters.

The most important thing union members are guaranteed is dignity - the promise, as one union organizer noted, "of being treated like a man or woman, with rights and abilities that management must respect."


Better pay, better benefits, greater security and influence - union members have that, and more. For there is indeed strength in unity.

You can be sure there would be many more union members if workers were granted the unfettered right to unionize. But that's being denied them by employers, with the help of government agents who are failing to provide workers with promised legal protections.

Copyright (c) 2006 Dick Meister