Unions And ‘Labor’ Are Not The Same

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Lloyd Billingsley Policy Fellow, Independent Institute
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Establishment media stories on Labor Day can easily leave the impression that “labor” and unions are one and the same. Workers across the nation should reject that equation because it isn’t true.

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), only 10.7 percent of American workers in the private sector are union members, down 0.4 percent from the previous year of 2015. In other words, 89.3 percent of American workers, the vast majority, are not union members.

The 14.6 million union members in the USA represent a decline of 240,000 from 2015. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was20.1 percent, and 17.7 million union workers were union members. So the decline in union membership has been steady, for good reason.

An essentially nineteenth-century model is not exactly the best fit for a modern economy. More workers seek value for their own specific skills, and do not want to link their future to raises negotiated by union bosses whose salaries are always a lot higher than those of the rank and file.

In another story neglected by the establishment media, even agricultural workers are rejecting union representation.

In recent years, workers at Gerawan Farms, in California’s central valley, have been holding demonstrations reminiscent of the 1960s but this time against the United Farm Workers (UFW). Nearly 100 percent of Gerawan’s workers, some of the highest paid in California agriculture, did not work for the company in 1990, and never voted for the UFW in that election.

Founded by Cesar Chavez, the UFW once boasted 50,000 dues-paying members but is now down to about 5,000. Even so, the UFW demanded that Gerawan workers pay the UFW 3 percent of their wages. In this deal, those who refuse to pay would be fired.

The UFW is leveraging the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB), composed entirely of governor Jerry Brown’s political appointees. Gerawan workers held mass protests outside ALRB offices, and the agency finally agreed to let them vote but then impounded the ballots and complied with UFW demands that they not be counted.

This week the California Supreme Court will hear arguments on the law that allows Gov. Brown’s appointees to dictate wages and working conditions on behalf of politically connected unions.

According to the BLS, meanwhile, 34.4 percent of government employees are union members. That means 65.6 percent of government employees, nearly two-thirds, are not union members. On the other hand, government employee unions hold huge sway over politicians.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) rallies outside the California capitol proclaiming “this is our house!” They got the pay hike they wanted and now back bills to increase staff at dialysis clinics. As even the left-leaning Sacramento Bee noted, health experts should make that call, not unions seeking to leverage government power.

The SEIU also backs a bill that would require employees of independent home-care firms to divulge their cellphone numbers, mailing addresses and email addresses to unions that seek to organize them. This is a clear invasion of privacy aimed only at boosting union membership, and the liberal Bee labeled it a “special interest bill that ought to die.”

As the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms, unions are a distinct minority in both government and the private sector. Unions are not the same as “labor” and in today’s economy unions are a special interest.

In an expanding job market, workers should hone their skills and look out for their own interests. They have nothing to lose but their chains.

Lloyd Billingsley is a Policy Fellow at the Independent Institute. He is the author of Barack ‘em Up: A Literary Investigation and Bill of Writes: Dispatches from the Political Correctness Battlefield.