Wrestling with some dismal data on the waning strength of America’s organized labor, Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis tried to make the best of it. She said in her January 21st press release that the data showed the need for workers to unionize.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on January 21 that the unionization rate of employed wage and salary workers dropped noticeably last year. For 2010, the agency announced, the rate nationwide fell to 11.9 percent overall, from 12.3 percent in 2009. In the private sector, the news was no better. The rate there dropped to 6.9 percent, from 7.2 the year before. There are 16.9 million workers in jobs covered by collective bargaining agreements, BLS reported, but 1.6 million of them indicated no union membership. Half of the 14.7 million union members lived in just six states: California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Jersey. The highest unionization rates were in education, training and library occupations. It is hard to imagine that half a century ago unions represented a third or more of America’s workforce.
But citing weekly wage differentials between union workers and non-union workers, the Administration’s chief (organized) labor advocate said that union jobs, with better benefits and pay, were central to restoring the middle class. Thus, the Secretary said, protecting the right to organize and bargain collectively was especially important to our economic recovery.
We wouldn’t count on a resurgence of union representation to fuel the engine of America’s recovery and job growth. If unions were so attractive, why are the BLS numbers so bleak? The recession took its toll on union jobs, as well as others. Unions could not prevent sizable layoffs in their members’ ranks and have not led the way back from high unemployment. They stand little chance of doing so, we think.
Despite the Secretary’s opinion, and the tinkering of a pro-union National Labor Relations Board trying to tilt the legal playing field in organized labor’s favor, America’s workers generally have shown little interest in casting their lot with the “fraternally yours” crowd. Perhaps a better educated, mobile, electronically oriented, and diverse workforce no longer sees as much value in traditional union representation — at least not enough to offset the cost in dollars and individual opportunity. And perhaps the Secretary’s generalizations on union workers’ compensation are too much influenced by the large contingent of public-sector union workers in the total mix and the shrinking clusters of union-dominated private-sector jobs. Employee free choice on union representation must be defended. Saddling America’s workers with unions they do not want to fulfill the Administration’s vision for economic reengineering, however, is ill-conceived.
Jobs with good wages and benefits are worth achieving. No one denies it. But unless these jobs are competitive, productive, and efficiently performed, and unless they reward individual achievement, they cannot last in today’s global economy. The President may have come to that realization as he seeks to reassure small business and corporate executives that he intends to rein in government regulation in order to create a climate conducive to growth and job creation. Unions have yet to show America’s workers they understand that need, too.