Over the past three years, I have witnessed a change in discussion about labor, unionization, workplace ethics and the like. While unions might have been a hard topic to approach a couple of years ago, it is becoming more common to hear them brought up in conversation, though people are not always in favor of them. President Joe Biden talked about how unions are the foundation of the American middle class in a speech early this year, in which he gave his support for the Pro Act. Rapper Vince Staples even showed off his SAG-AFTRA union card during a GQ interview, giving the labor association a shoutout.
At Bowdoin, things have also changed since I first set foot on campus. On May 4, 2018, the Orient published an article titled, “Facilities workers struggle to make ends meet” showing everyone on campus how housekeepers were paid less than a living wage. The article started the movement which later led to the formation of the Bowdoin Labor Alliance, through which we have tried to stand by the side of Bowdoin housekeepers and fight for better wages and working conditions. In December 2019, the Orient reported on the unionization effort of some of the housekeepers, and in 2020, there were more pieces about labor in the Orient than there have ever been since I started school here in 2018.
Even if discussions about unions and workplace issues have become more mainstream, the situation on the ground hasn’t progressed as much. In 2020, 10.8 percent of wage and salary workers were members of a labor union, an increase of only half a percent from 2019. Still, the number of workers who were unionized decreased by 321,000, meaning only 14.3 million workers were part of a union. While there was an increase in the percentage, the unemployment rate, which skyrocketed due to the pandemic, made it inaccurately look like there was more union presence than ever.
The statistics look dire, and if we go into more detail, we realize that most of the union members are working in the public sector, as 35 percent of the total public sector workforce while only 5 percent of private-sector employees are organized. There is still a fear of unionization amongst employees that was aided by campaigns dating back to Nixon, which, combined with some level of corruption amongst certain union leaders, made people question the relevance of those institutions in the workplace.
The fact that there are law firms that help bust unionization efforts inside the workplace still makes us wonder why employers are so afraid of organized labor. They might say that without a union, there can be better negotiation and that the workers won’t have to abide by a contract that might not be to their advantage. On the contrary, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that workers who are union members or represented by a union tend to earn a weekly median wage that is around $200 more than non-organized workers.
Furthermore, workers represented by a union had more job security during the pandemic in 2021. The fact that many of those jobs are in the public sector and that many union members are policemen, public service employees, nurses and teachers contributed to the rate of joblessness being lower than in the private sector. Yet, having a collective bargaining contract with a very precise set of firing and hiring practices, lowers one’s possibility of losing their job.
The trend of focusing on labor issues is not always visible when it comes down to unionization, since the great majority of this country’s workers are not members of one. In June, half of the states announced that they will be ending the increased unemployment benefits implemented because of the pandemic, even though the federal government was still sponsoring the program. The rhetoric behind the cut was that unemployment benefits encourage laziness and make people want to stay off the job market. On the contrary, research done by Aridrajit Dube and co-authors states that only one out of eight people who lost benefits actually ended up getting another job. The problem isn’t laziness, it’s the lack of well-paid and accessible jobs.
It is no longer the case, as the pandemic has proven to us, that we can continue to hit the working-class and expect that by cutting their services and stripping their unions of power, the situation will get better. The statistics tell us that union membership leads to a higher median income, while unemployment benefits help those who are unable to make ends meet.
More than ever, everyone on this campus should regard labor as a major component in their critical analysis. Just as these discussions are getting more screen time, union leadership is going to change next year, opening the path to a new practice and culture amongst the top federations. The AFL-CIO might elect a far-left president, while the Teamsters might choose to repudiate the legacy of the infamous Jimmy Hoffa.
Despite election results and the national changes in labor law, we must play our part as active citizens and students, and be informed and learn how to critically look at work, workplace issues and bargaining. You can no longer tell workers that they can just go and take their problems to the boss and expect them to believe you.