WRITTEN BY SAMANTHA JACOBS
Labor union membership may need to increase in order for workers to earn fair pay.
The assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Labor and chief economist for the AFL-CIO has been watching closely as the gap between the rich and the poor grows and workers demand higher wages.
“We’re getting close to being worse than what we were in the 1920s,” Dr. William E. Spriggs said.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released a report showing that union membership was down to 12.2 percent for full-time workers and nearly six percent for part-time workers, falling from the previous year.
The United States has extremely low union membership rates, falling behind countries such as Italy, Argentina, the United Kingdom and Canada, according to the International Labor Organization.
“The correlation is actually quite high between union density in a state, and whether the state has a higher minimum wage than the federal minimum wage,” Spriggs said. “So this has spillover effects to non-union members.”
As tough as things are now, Spriggs urges that changes in the workforce today are not hopeless fights for better equality.
“As cocky as we tend to be about our current generation, we need to be reminded that the 19th and 20th century was far more dramatic than what we’re living through,” Spriggs said. “Just think about all of the innovations that came about at the end of the 19th and early 20th century; airplanes, X-ray machines, radio, telephone.”
The new jobs that were created by these inventions were not considered good jobs at first. It took years of fighting, unionization and striking for workers to get the compensation they craved.
“Unions are the best way, and certainly that’s what we strive for, but some workers are outside of our labor laws and so they can’t organize in what would be recognized as unions,” Spriggs said.
Organizations such as “Fight for 15” have sprung up recently as workers push for a $15 minimum wage, but with declining union membership, this goal could be hard to achieve.
“I think that the hours that people work should increase a little bit more,” Wendy, a Catholic Social Services consumer and volunteer who asked that only her first name be included, said “The wage should increase because everything is going up, up, up but the hours and the income have not been up, up so we cannot catch up with that. So you never have enough.”
Race-wise, black workers had a higher union membership rate at 13.6 percent than workers who were white with a rate of 10.8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report.
“The boss can pick and choose on gender, he can pick and choose on race, he can pick and choose on religion, and unions form a way for workers to protect themselves from that type of behavior,” Spriggs said.
Wages among the workers in the same field should also be fair based on the job requirements and experience, but that does not usually happen.
“The pay gap between African Americans who are union members and those who are not is actually bigger than the pay gap between whites who are union members and who are not,” Spriggs said. “The union provides that protection against discrimination so there’s less discrimination in the union sector than in the nonunion sector.”