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    496. Do Unions Still Work?

    Labor unions have a historical impact on protecting workers, but can limit job mobility and incentivize mediocrity. Younger workers should get involved to bring about change and individuals should weigh potential benefits and drawbacks for their careers.

    en-usMarch 10, 2022

    About this Episode

    Organized labor hasn’t had this much public support in 50 years, and yet the percentage of Americans in a union is near a record low. A.F.L-C.I.O. president Liz Shuler tries to explain this gap — and persuade Stephen Dubner that “the folks who brought you the weekend” still have the leverage to fix a broken economy.

    🔑 Key Takeaways

    • Despite widespread support for unions, membership is low due to barriers such as company practices and lack of government support. Recent labor protests may be a sign of increasing interest in unionizing among workers.
    • Despite challenges, unions are finding new ways to support workers in a changing economy. The AFL-CIO, a federation of diverse unions, is a key player in advocating for better working conditions and pay. Union momentum is on the rise.
    • Unions provide a path for working people to come together and fight for better working conditions and treatment. The Alphabet Workers Union shows that young people in tech value collective action. However, labor laws need to change to make it easier for workers to form unions.
    • Unions can give workers more power and have a significant impact on the economy and workers' wages. Workers can start by acting collectively to demonstrate a united workforce and build support to overcome challenges in forming unions.
    • Subtitle: The failed Amazon unionization was about working conditions.  Unrelenting demands, surveillance without support, and anti-union tactics are prevalent in some firms. Unions have a history of improving worker wages and conditions.
    • Unions could be the answer for gig workers who want employee protections, job mobility, and benefits like healthcare or retirement. Companies like Amazon have resisted unions, but past labor movements were built on gig work.
    • Despite the flexibility touted by the gig economy, workers in non-traditional employment often lack benefits like health insurance. The labor movement advocates for baseline security and collaboration between firms and unions for better opportunities for gig workers.
    • High-profile pickets can bring attention and pressure to labor movements, despite significant challenges and differing goals and strategies within the unions. They continue to advocate for better pay, healthcare coverage, and safer working conditions.
    • European countries, like Germany, have stronger government intervention to balance the relationship between labor unions and firms or industries. The Build Back Better plan aims to fund union-friendly positions, but faces opposition from Republicans and swing voters. Democrats are more supportive of unions than Republicans.
    • The AFL-CIO works to support elected officials who prioritize job creation and fair wages for working people regardless of political party. Efforts are made to bring Republican members on board and address broken labor laws. The organization is also holding law enforcement union members accountable for high-quality work.
    • ULEADS promotes accountability among law enforcement officers, while Liz Shuler advocates for union jobs in the clean-energy economy. The transition may eliminate some jobs, but there is potential for high-quality, family-sustaining jobs to emerge.
    • Unions face corruption allegations, but bad actors exist in every organization. It's up to members to hold leaders accountable and restore trust. AFL-CIO stands for integrity and ensures dues are used wisely. Federation autonomy and diversity require leadership to work towards common goals.
    • Labor unions have a historical impact on protecting workers, but can limit job mobility and incentivize mediocrity. Younger workers should get involved to bring about change and individuals should weigh potential benefits and drawbacks for their careers.
    • Investing in a skilled workforce and working with unions leads to long-term success. Liz Shuler emphasizes the need for collaboration and highlights the progress made in raising awareness of acceptable behavior. More women in leadership roles means a better relationship between firms and employees.
    • Women leaders can bring diversity of thought and inclusive decision-making, leading to positive growth across various sectors, including the labor movement. Embracing immigrants and advocating for them is crucial for a sustainable workforce.

    📝 Podcast Summary

    The State of Union Membership in the US Workforce

    Despite high public approval, union membership in the US workforce is at an all-time low of just over 10%. The recent surge in labor protests and unionizing efforts at companies like Amazon and Starbucks may be due to journalists' self-coverage and Americans' pro-union sentiments. Significant wage stagnation over the past few decades has made unionizing more appealing to workers, but there are still barriers to entry such as punitive company practices and lack of support from government and laws. Workers' desire for unionization is evident in high public approval, especially among those under 35, but the question remains on what exactly is stopping them from joining.

    The AFL-CIO and the Evolution of the American Labor Movement

    The American labor movement is seeking to remain relevant and continue advocating for workers in a changing economy. As the country faces a labor crisis, unions are working to find new ways to support workers and push for better working conditions and pay. The AFL-CIO, a federation of unions representing 12.5 million workers, is a key player in this effort. While some unions have diversified to represent workers in a variety of industries, the AFL-CIO remains a diverse organization that includes unions representing police officers, auto workers, and NFL players. Despite challenges, union momentum is on the rise and there is reason to believe that the labor movement can remain a powerful tool in supporting workers.

    The Importance of Unions in the Current Economy

    The economy is not working for working people. Workers are fed up with the lack of appreciation and value placed on their labor. Strikes are a sign that companies are not doing enough and that enough is enough. Unions are a path forward for working people across different industries. The Alphabet Workers Union is an example of organizing efforts in tech that show young people see the value in coming together collectively. However, labor laws in the United States are so broken that it takes heroism and courage to form a union, as workers are likely to get fired.

    The Power of Unions: A Solution for Closing the Inequality Gap

    Unions can serve as a solution to close the inequality gap by giving workers more power. Despite having lost popularity in recent years, unions can still have a significant impact on the economy and workers' wages. Employers may fight hard against them, but unions' advocacy pushes the economy to behave in a way that benefits everyone. Although there may be challenges in forming unions, workers can start by acting collectively, building support, and demonstrating the power of a united workforce. The benefits of unions are proven in history, as they were a solution in the past, and could be one again in the present.

    The failed Amazon unionization was about working conditions. Key takeaway: Unrelenting demands, surveillance without support, and anti-union tactics are prevalent in some firms. Unions have a history of improving worker wages and conditions.

    The recent failed unionization attempt at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama was not about wages, but about the poor working conditions that workers face. The workers were subject to unrelenting demands and surveillance and had no one to talk to. In response, they came together to form a union. However, Amazon used anti-union tactics to discourage workers from forming a union. Despite the failure of the first vote, the National Labor Relations Board found Amazon in violation of the law and will rerun the election. Amazon and firms like it pay higher wages in part because of union pressure. The 'Fight for 15' campaign, which called for a $15 minimum wage, has helped raise wages for workers across industries.

    Can Unions Provide Protections and Benefits for Gig Workers?

    The fight for workers' rights and better wages has become a normal part of the labor landscape. Companies like Amazon have resisted unions but gig workers may offer a way forward. The labor movement was originally built on gig work and unions could once again become the vehicle for flexible, responsive and portable work arrangements. Currently, worker protections such as healthcare and retirement are tied to employer relationships, limiting job mobility. Unions could offer a solution by advocating for gig workers and making sure they are protected by the companies they work for.

    The Challenges and Opportunities of Gig Work for Workers

    The gig economy presents challenges for workers who rely on health insurance and other benefits tied to traditional employment. While flexibility is often touted as a benefit of gig work, it can also lead to increased precarity. The labor movement advocates for a baseline of security and predictability for all working people, rather than upending the traditional employment model. Examples of successful compromises between firms and unions, such as the partnership between the United Auto Workers and the auto industry during the Obama administration, demonstrate the potential for collaboration. However, the labor movement needs to garner more leverage in order to increase wages and benefits for workers, especially in the gig economy.

    The Significance of Union Movements and Strikes in Modern Times

    Union movements and strikes may seem futile, but high-profile pickets can bring attention and pressure to the situation. Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO, recently joined union workers in a picket line in Los Angeles. They were striking against the Rich Products Corporation, which reportedly met most of the strikers' demands less than two weeks later. This may be seen as a small victory, but still highlights how labor movements still face significant challenges. The rivalry between the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) highlights the differing goals and strategies of unions, who merged in 1955 to combat anti-union legislation such as the Taft-Hartley Act. Despite this, labor movements continue to be important in advocating for better pay, healthcare coverage, and safer working conditions.

    The Varying Influence of Labor Unions in the US and Europe

    Labor unions in the US have lost leverage over the years, with union participation rates at an all-time low, while in Europe union membership rates are much higher, with Germany as an ideal model. Historians suggest that the stronger presence of central government in Europe allowed the state to balance the power of capitalists and corporations, leading to a different relationship between labor unions and firms or industries. In Germany, the unions have representatives on the board of companies, and they, along with the employer association, bargain a wage that is applied everywhere in that industry. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. supports the Build Back Better plan to fund union-friendly positions, but the plan lacks support from Republicans and a few Democratic swing voters. Democrats are more supportive of unions than Republicans. Liz Shuler advocates for government assistance to support workers, similar to other developed nations.

    Prioritizing the Needs of Working People in the US

    The United States is the richest country in the world, but needs to prioritize the needs of working people in terms of job creation and fair wages. AFL-CIO, regardless of political party, focuses on supporting elected officials who align with the needs of working people. With 30% of AFL-CIO members aligning with the Republican Party, efforts should be made to bring them on board. The broken labor laws in this country are not working and policing as a profession is also in need of fixing. The AFL-CIO is taking responsibility, working to find solutions and holding their law enforcement union members accountable for high-quality and high-caliber work.

    ULEADS and the Labor Movement's Push for Clean Energy Jobs

    Union Law Enforcement Accountability and Duty Standards (ULEADS) is an accountability mechanism that aims to break down the blue wall of silence and ensure that fellow law enforcement officers are held accountable if they do not act according to values. Despite opposing the Green New Deal, Liz Shuler, former secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, believes in the need for the clean-energy economy, which runs through the labor movement, to create sustainable jobs. She emphasizes the need to reduce carbon emissions and transportation emissions while ensuring that jobs created are good union jobs. Shuler acknowledges that the transition to renewable energy will eliminate some jobs, but she envisions high-quality, family-sustaining jobs emerging from the transition, rather than low-wage jobs with no benefits.

    The Importance of Accountability and Integrity in Unions

    Unions have a tainted reputation due to corruption allegations, but it is important to remember that bad actors exist in every organization. It is up to the working people and members to hold their leaders accountable and restore trust. As the A.F.L.- C.I.O., their job is to stand for values of integrity and ensure that the precious dues dollars come from working people are used wisely and in an accountable way. Being a confederation that has numerous unions under their umbrella, there is a lot of autonomy and diversity. However, it is important for the head of the federation umbrella to try and keep their cats in a herd and work towards moving forward on the things they care about.

    The Impact of Labor Unions on Working People

    The labor movement fights for all working people, not just union members. Despite scandals, it's important to recognize the historical impact of labor unions in protecting workers from exploitative employers. However, unions can also have negative effects on job mobility and incentivize mediocrity. It's important for younger workers to get involved in their union to bring about change and prioritize the needs and contributions of all members. Ultimately, individuals have the power to choose whether or not to participate in a union and should weigh the potential benefits and drawbacks for their own careers and goals.

    The Importance of Skilled Workforce and Collaborating with Unions.

    Liz Shuler, the first female president of the A.F.L-C.I.O, highlights the importance of investing in a highly skilled workforce and collaborating with unions for long-term success. She draws on her own experiences of sexual harassment and lack of power as a young woman in the workforce. However, she notes that things have improved over time, and the #MeToo movement has helped raise awareness of what is acceptable behavior. As more women enter leadership roles, there is hope for a more collaborative and less exploitative relationship between firms and employees.

    Women's leadership in creating a new legacy

    Women are rising up in leadership positions in various sectors, leading to a moment of women's leadership. The predominantly male leadership may have contributed to the polarized environment in the country, and women could be the facilitators to bring people together. Liz Shuler's changed perception of immigrant workers being a threat and her advocacy for immigration reform is an example of how people's thinking can evolve over time. Embracing immigrant workers and advocating for immigration reform is crucial to ensuring a sustainable workforce with voice and protection, and the labor movement is one of the biggest advocates for it. The A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s president, Liz Shuler, is up for reelection in June, and her rumored challenger is another strong female leader, Sara Nelson, representing the Association of Flight Attendants.

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