Join the Conversation: Are Labor Unions Still Relevant?

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Supporters attending a labor rally hold signs supporting rights to unionize at United Steelworkers union headquarters in Pittsburgh, PA. July 2006. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Supporters attending a labor rally hold signs supporting rights to unionize at United Steelworkers union headquarters in Pittsburgh, PA. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

In this week’s show, Bill says:

“The percentage of union members in the American workforce has declined in the last 60 years from 35 to 12 percent, and labor has faced a pounding series of setbacks of which the Supreme Court’s Knox decision is just the latest. And yet, with corporations continuing to put the squeeze on employees, with joblessness and inequality rampant, now would seem the perfect time for people to turn back to unions to fight for them against the monied interests. Why haven’t they?”

We asked audience members to share their thoughts on the question: “Are labor unions still relevant?

You had a lot of thoughtful responses. Here are some editors’ picks from comment boards, Facebook and Twitter.


Diane Kalen-Sukra, a self-described “20-year veteran of labor and union rep for N.A.’s largest unions” writes:

Everybody knows that union density and power has been on a steady decline for the past 30 years. Like a fighter past his prime, we spend alot of time remembering and reminding others our past battles and achievements — the eight hour work day, employment insurance, and social security to name a few.

Trade union policy papers endlessly blame this decline on the severity of the neo-liberal attack on the social welfare state, unions and workers’ rights and encourage ways to address this by supporting progressive politicians, organizing the unorganized and encouraging young workers to “get involved”…

Why is it, for instance, that the Occupy movement was able to do more to educate, inspire and change the public discourse around social and economic inequality, the corporate agenda, the casino economy and threats to our democracy, in the first few months of its relatively unorganized and unfunded existence, than the entire labour movement, with its wealth, army of researchers and octopus-like communications apparatus, was able to do in a generation?

Paul N. writes:

The wealthy elite have been trying to destroy unions for almost forty years in an attempt to usurp the power of our government. I’m afraid they are succeeding due to a propaganda campaign fueled by enormous amounts of money. Our unions are part of our only defense against these morally corrupt individuals.

Donna Hoffman says unions are uniquely positioned to regulate corporations, but she wishes for a change in focus, to working women, artists and small businesses:

Yes. Yes. Yes. More so now than 50 years ago. As long as corporations are weakly regulated, unions become the regulators. However, they need to expand past male dominated workplaces. Women in service industries need the power of unions. Restaurant workers need unions. Artists of all stripes need unions. Small businesses need unions. Any minority needs unions. I don’t know why people aren’t fighting for unions, perhaps they are too exhausted after working 3 jobs to make ends meet. Unions need to reach out to all of the above not the other way around.

Susan agrees and calls for unions to evolve into a nationalized political party, the Labor Party:

Agreed. The traditional labor unions focus on large industries and on the public sector, rather than on all people who work for a living. Perhaps America needs not just labor unions, but a Labor Party.

Small farmers, small business owners, freelancers and others who work in the gig economy need to be recognized as workers, too. Unions in the US focused on large industries and the public sector, and when small business people are considered at all, they are lumped together (as employers or potential employers) with the large corporations, rather than seeing they have much more in common with workers.

Over on the Bill Moyers’ Facebook page, Laura Meissenburg writes that unions need to be more reasonable:

Unions went from upgrading our working conditions and educating apprentices to bullying the employer and forcing non-union employees into the unions. I still think they can find a way to be relevant by reinventing themselves as a (reasonable) line of communication between the workforce and the employers. But this “I-can’t-do-that job (open a box)-because-I-am-union-and-that-is-not-part-of-my-job-description” HAS TO STOP.

Susan Warrow believes unions are still an important check on corporate power:

Corporations have been abusing their power for over a century, but the media doesn’t call them a lost cause. Checks and balances are necessary in business as well as government, so as long as CEOs are just out for themselves and profits, unions are a necessary check to all that corporate power.

Elroy Thomas takes the long view and reminds people what unions have accomplished for workers:

Many of us would not have the life we have without unions. The 8 hour workday, 5 five day work week, health insurance, safety laws and so much more. Think of everything that our children will not have because we let unions died.

Back at, David agrees:

The amount of energy and money over the centuries just to undercut unions shows the level to which real unions were successful and now needed more than ever. They are not irrelevant–they’ve just been made impotent. The cure isn’t get rid of them. They still have the history and the tactics. The cure is to release them from their bondage.

Pat Christensen says we need to work together to save unions and our democracy:

The past 35 years of “the individual uber alles” attitude has all but broken the back of the union movement. The idea that one man or one woman is all the matters and that working together for anything is irrelevant, even shameful somehow, is what is destroying unions, far more than business or corporate interests alone could ever do. … The idea of the Constitution was for us to form a more perfect UNION, but lately the concept of the citizenry being united in anything has become almost an obscene reading of the Founding Fathers’ document. And as long as they keep us happily separated from one another, nobody can wrest power from the oligarchy…and they know it. Unions aren’t irrelevant. It’s the idea of anyone uniting together that has become almost unheard of in today’s society. We need to re-embrace the concept of a “shared destiny” as a nation. We’ve lost that, almost entirely. If we can get it back somehow, and remember the history of unions in this country, we might still stand a chance of our democracy surviving. Otherwise, I have little hope anymore.

And on Facebook, Betsy Mazzone sums it up:

As long as some people think corporation are people… bet we need Unions.

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  • FreshGreenKim

    Yes, they are. Something that folks never seem to realize when they gripe about a union is the fact that anything a union negotiates? Management agreed upon. Logically, what company will agree to policies that will bankrupt it? Management has already sat down with numbers people and figured out what they can afford. They just won’t pay any more than they need to pay. So when you hear a company crying that the “union is the reason” they are hurting financially, pause and think. Maybe the REASON is that the boss took more than the company could afford after paying the workers? 

  • Dom Zuccone

    In my youth I had to join the United Steel Workers Union. I thought it was predatory and corrupt (which it was) until I began working in a steel mill, then I gave my dues gladly. Like many abstractions, the reality may be less than we hope. So it’s been with unions. Currently I belong to the AFT, one of the largest, weakest voices for its members. But once again when I’m faced with the reality of my workplace, I pay my dues to try to stave off the relentless dismantlement of public education. Its passivity annoys me. As does much that has occured in the last few decades to degrade the American Worker. The attack on unions has only been a part of the overall movement to lower the cost and value of labor and work. It seems to me that movement is to build not a “service based” industry base, but a servant class. Unions, labor, those of us with jobs or wanting jobs have no meaningful representation outside of unions, and union representation is only barely meaningful. They still matter; they have to… Unfortunately they’re demonized, while conservative PAC operate legally in secret and the Koch Brothers can manipulate markets and media. Unions haven’t brought about a recession, depression or the rise in health care costs. They are merely the response.

  • Blp117

    I grew up singing, “Come Dance With Me Henry” with my father in his effort to make sure I never forgot how things were before the Unions.  Then the  Unions got greedy,  workers became complacent, some of their leaders were  mafia and or embezelers.    The quality of work declined with companies reluctant to discipline employees.  We need Unions for a balance of power, but if they are to continue they must become more reasonable.    

  • Union Thug for Humanity

    Unions are just as vital now as in any other time in history. With the  power of multinational corporations throughout the world, the working class needs to unite in their efforts to protect their rights and the rights of those not fortunate enough to have been born into the wealthy elite. As we witness the growing influence of corporations in our own political system via Citizens United, we are exposed to their greed and blatant disregard for future generations. Unfortunately unions are often demonized by these groups in their deceitful campaign ads, but must remain a critical piece of any democracy as defenders of workers’ rights.

  • Jack Burman

    Are Labor Unions Still  Relevant? I don’t see why they still should be today. Why must employment be an adversarial activity? It really is mutually beneficial. It seems to me that updating the NLRB act could provide all the safeguards needed for the majority of workers to get a fair deal with wages, benefits and protections.

  • Annamayz

    The unions are indeed still relevant. What happened to undo them? Did they get too uppity for their bosses? I sincerely hope the public gets it that they are an important balancing agent for the employee. 

  • John Ballard

    I’m a retired cafeteria manager who spent 27 years with a Southern cafeteria chain. During that time I probably employed several thousand people, most of whom were at or just above the federal minimum wage. There were a limited number of better-paying jobs in the building but there was little turnover in bakers, cooks, chefs, and dining room supervisors. I learned that the only way to attract and retain good people was to find non-pecuniary ways to reward them — flexibility in scheduling, allowing family members to work together, treating all with respect and making sure that good workers never had to tolerate working with someone who was not doing a good job. 

    My attitude toward unions was simple. Any company with a union deserved it because it was so easy to keep even poorly paid people satisfied if they were treated with respect and given total support if and when they needed to go to a better job. Most of my staff realized that I did not have any real control over wages because wages in the food business are for the most part set by the labor market. In Atlanta that has always been considered a “tough” market to manage, because if anyone didn’t like the job or how they were treated they would quickly go find another job. This has been true ever since I started and is still true today. 

    I retired ten years ago but last week I went back to eat at one of our cafeterias and saw three or four employees who had been working for the company more than 25 years. One was a woman I hired in 1977 who has been a dining room assistant ever since.  

    The moral of this story is simple. When the relationship between management and their staff (I hate referring to people as “labor”) is what it should be the question of forming a union never comes up. Unions are like any other challenges facing any company — safety, good training, sanitation, uniforms, consistency of policy execution, fairness and all the rest. 


    Having said all that I have a deep appreciation for the historic importance of unions which have had to fight hard against exploitation. I have seen poor management in the food business, often involving those who wear the neckties and bear the title of “manager” or “assistant manager.” I know of several companies, typically fast food but full service as well, who seem to have a savage approach to their people, treating them with the same indifference as equipment, using them as long as possible, driving them to extract maximum output with the least possible support,  then casting them aside when they are used up.  I would like to argue that they are running a bad business, but I learned years ago that such practices will not show up on the profit line. Blood doesn’t show on a balance sheet.  Those are the places that should be targeted by union organizers, and whatever legal tactics they use are justified. 

    Whoever came up with the term “gig economy” is on the right track.  A few companies may still be around that will retain employees for a working career, all the way to retirement. But they are a shrinking group and hard to get into — for reasons I have already described. Those who already work there are not likely to leave and the good jobs will be filled from the lower ranks within those companies.  (Outsourcing core jobs is the mark of a company struggling to keep afloat. The only reason for outsourcing is to get something done not within the corporate mission.)

    Like all old retired guys I could go on for reams, but that’s enough for a comment thread. This is an excellent conversation and needs to become more mainstream. 

  • morrigan

    Thinking about Pat Christensen’s comment about joining together…

    Bill Strauss and Neil Howe wrote a book called Generations: A History of America’s Future in which they described generational cycles and characteristics.  It changed the way I look at history and current events.

    Among their observations was that the GI generation was a generation of joiners.  They worked together in Federal programs during the Depression.  They worked together fighting World War II.  And after the war they joined organizations from the Rotary Club to the Lions Club to the Knights of Columbus to labor unions.  Their generational outlook was that you join together to get things accomplished.

    If you look at the historical charts, union membership was at its highest when these folks ranged in age from 25 or so to 55 or so.  Once they started retiring, the membership rates decline sharply.  That decline becomes steeper with Reagan’s election (and his attack on unions). 

    If the authors commented on other generations’ inclinations to ‘join up,’ I don’t remember them.  The Millennials are the same generational ‘type’ as the GI generation.  I have noticed that most Millennials I know prefer teamwork over solitary work.  Perhaps the notion of working together for the good of all will stir them and perhaps they will be our next true leaders in the union movement.


  • Flex

    My experience comes from a position as a former local cheif steward and local union president.  The unions in the south and probably around the country are filled with people who do not understand politically where the parties stand on collective bargaining.  Many of my white members would vote republican and seemed to have favored the company more than they favored the the goals and aspirations of the union.  Until working class white people vote their interest instead of their prejudices unions will continue to falter in America. 

  • Flex

    The NLRB has been co opted by the right wing and is virtually ineffective.  Without political muscle from unions worker’s right will continue to erode.

  • Midniterider

    *FEET IN THE STREET* are what matters now, mainly b/c it’s effectiveness and one of the few avenues left to the general public to organize and execute after most corporate influences and recent Supremes’ decisions have cut off the rest.

  • ohio union supporter

    Unions gave up when Reagan fired the PATCO and the SAG failed to pull his union card and bring him up on union bustin charges! American workers real wages have fallen every year since! We need to remember the rober barron that machine gunned striking auto workers. When his wall street directors told him to keep profits up on falling car sales by cutting wages, his answer was “If we cut their wages, what will they buy ours cars with?” I cannot figure out how detroit is selling cars now, working people have no money! As stockholders we need to sue corporate directors for the return of multimillion $ salaries that reghtfully belong to shareholders as dividends! I was told in collage that company executives had a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of stockholders, not steal from them!

  • Lawpo

    If unions are to be relevant in the 21st century, they have to accept globalization and figure out how to aid the worker without destroying the employer; a la the automobile industry. Its not simply a matter of Asian societies using cheap exploited labor that’s hurting us. Look at the German example, where workers are paid well, have great benefits, yet manufacturing and exports thrive.  There, unions are represented on management boards and don’t view the negotiating process as a zero sum game. Not until unions figure out how to contribute to the success of a business enterprise, instead of fighting for more benefits, less work hours, stifling work rules, etc. will unions find their place.

  • Mmcdonalduri

    The right wing has been able to frame the argument using a misery loves company ideology.  25 years ago the private sector worker lost his secure retirement, affordable healthcare, and decent working conditions.  Public sector unions are the last middle class workers to have preserved decent health insurance, working conditions and secure retirement.  Now the right wing fueled by big business billions has spent the last 2 decades convincing the average private sector worker Public sector employees enjoy exorbitant benefits.  The irony being these exorbitant benefits are what we all had 25 years ago.  We need to join together as workers Public and private sector, union and non-union, white collar and blue collar and demand basic rights.  If we don’t the wealth gap in America will continue to grow, and before long we will not recognize our Country. 

  • Roger

    I believe in the future when it comes to unions, it will quickly become about membership value.

    Membership in a union for the unions sake is dead.

    Those unions that are able to provide value to the membership equal or greater than the amount they collect in dues will always survive. But the unions like any other large organization typically moves slowly. Actually providing value to its members is a new concept.

    Sure unions are formed so that members have a collective voice. But actually providing measurable value and making all members aware of the value is the only shift that will keep unions in business long term. Union leadership will need to put their own agenda on hold and flatten the organization to a purely membership focused organization.

    With today’s generation of short term thinkers, unions will need to develop extensive advertising campaigns to its members that stresses what the unions are doing for them today

    I believe there will always be a place for unions in the US. I just don’t know if they will continue to be relevant in the private sector.

  • Invasive Evasion

    It always amazes me how many workers fight against their own interests. Perhaps if workers quit viewing themselves as temporarily disadvantaged billionaires, they would actually care about creating a fair system.