Always look for the union label
Baby Boomers and even Generation Xers of a certain vintage may well remember a catchy jingle, which can easily become an earworm, celebrating the work of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) urging Americans to buy clothing manufactured in America, by American workers. The ad campaign was begun during the late 1960s as American textile plants were closing all over the country, losing jobs and contracts to foreign manufacturing facilities in Asia and Latin America. The ads were regularly updated and recast with actual ILGWU members singing the “Always Look for the Union Label” jingle for nearly a generation.
Numerous retailers later adopted and adapted the “Made in America” logo – most notably Walmart – all the while actual union membership began an ongoing period of steep decline.
The U.S. Department of Labor recently released its new job and employment numbers for January 2023, as well as adjusting upward the new job numbers for November and December 2022. The January estimate is north of 550,000 new jobs, with hundreds of thousands of other positions still seeking workers to fill an estimated 10 million job openings. Within the private sector, there are roughly 7.2 million union members, just about 6 percent of the 120.36 million in the private sector workforce. Leisure and hospitality industry workers lead most of the growth in union membership.
Although unions did add more members during 2022 than any year since 2008, the percentage of all wage and salary workers who are active union members hit a record low of 10.1 percent. The only unions experiencing consistent growth are within the public sector, where municipal, county, state, and federal government workers now increasingly belong to unions. Some of this decline is also a result of the continuing U.S. shift away from manufacturing and toward service industries.
I have nothing but respect for hard-working Americans, laborers, and those on the front lines of almost every industry and workplace, but the way union leadership and political activism has morphed over time, I see less benefitting the member and more benefitting their boards, leadership, and even the offices and infrastructure of the unions themselves.
One of the largest unions in Georgia is the Teamsters, which among others represents 340,000 UPS employees. UPS has all of its divisions headquartered in metro Atlanta, and the truck drivers and package delivery division delivered more than 20 million parcels every day last year, second only to the U.S. Postal Service in daily ground deliveries (the USPS is also unionized). The current UPS contract is up on July 31, 2023; new contract negotiations begin in April. The last UPS worker strike lasted 15 days in 1997 when e-commerce and parcel delivery were only a small fraction of what they are today.
The Teamster’s new contract seeks $20 an hour for even part-time workers, the end to a sometimes-controversial two-tier wage system, air-conditioning for all UPS delivery trucks, and an end to the use of cameras facing inside the UPS trucks, both in the driver cab and in the rear of each truck. A substantial universal wage and shipping rates hike likely means a higher price for Amazon Prime and less free-shipping from many of the other merchants that you have come to rely on during the economic shift from retail to e-tail exacerbated by this pandemic.
Frequently negotiators lead their discussions with wage gap differences with the hourly rates of front-line workers and the company C-suite and attempt to gain access to the salaries and comp packages of union leaders. From your local union shop steward to the national presidents, you will find a good bit more translucence than transparency in those comp packages, and not surprisingly union members are increasingly also aware of these discrepancies.
In an age with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), state and federal departments of labor, and a raft of state and local ordinances regulating workplace conduct, discrimination, harassment, and litigation impacts on wrongful termination, the role of unions has morphed more from watchdog to show dog.
There are still industries and workplaces where workers need a pit bull, but at least in some union offices and operations, they now more often resemble the annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. More inbreeding may result in some additional refinement, but also a lot less bite in the dog. And in this case, at least among union members, they may not be getting what they think their dues are actually paying for.
Bill Crane is political analyst and commentator in metro Atlanta, as well as a columnist for The Champion, DeKalb Free Press and Georgia Trend. Crane is a DeKalb native and business owner, living in Scottdale. You can contact him or comment on a column at email@example.com.