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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