By Camille Fleming
The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.
If you ask the average worker what their favorite song is on a Monday morning, you’ll probably hear at least one person tell you that theirs is Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend.” However, this catchy 80’s tune might not have topped the charts in America if it weren’t for labor unions.
Merriam-Webster defines “labor unions” as “an organization of workers formed for the purpose of advancing its members’ interests in respect to wages, benefits, and working conditions.” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/labor%20union) While this is an accurate definition, it leaves out the rich history of the American union, and what these groups have done for employees.
The notion of an eight-hour workday was first introduced more than 150 years ago, in 1866, when an organization called the National Labor Union asked Congress to pass a law that would mandate all employers to follow eight-hour work days. Unfortunately, this push ultimately failed. However, it was only one year later when the Illinois Legislature passed their own version of the law, which was met with strife from employers. The movement that workers deserved a reasonable workweek was already in motion, as the public sector was granted stable wages and an eight-hour workday by President Grant in 1869, and the following decades featured other organizations that fought for the same rights. In 1926, Ford Motor Company adopted a five-day, 40-hour workweek, more than ten years before the Fair Labor Standards Act would be passed. (https://www.businessinsider.com/history-of-the-40-hour-workweek-2015-10)
Of course, labor unions have done more than just help guarantee reasonable working hours; labor unions have helped lower income inequality amongst Americans. In fact, the point in our history when income inequality was the lowest was also the point in which most Americans belonged to a union. (https://thinkprogress.org/report-five-things-unions-have-done-for-all-americans-6379ca1779fe/) One study of surveys on union membership and income spanning the 1930s up until today showed that workers who belong to a union have consistently made 20 percent more than their non-union counterparts. That’s not to say that non-union workers haven’t benefited from unions – outside of unionized industries, income inequality was still low in these areas when unions were popular among workers. (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/06/business/labor-unions-income-inequality.html)
Pay and time spent working are just two of the many examples demonstrating how unions have shaped our nation. Unions have helped put an end to child labor, along with having a hand in pushing for employer-provided insurance and the Family Medical Leave Act. (https://thinkprogress.org/report-five-things-unions-have-done-for-all-americans-6379ca1779fe/)
And yet, despite how unions have benefitted the workplace, Americans today don’t typically hold unions in the highest regard. Approval of unions was highest throughout the 1930s to the 1950s, peaking at around 75% in the middle 1950s. This percentage slowly declined in the 70s and 80s, with approval ratings dropping to around 55% to 65%. In 2009, union approval fell to its lowest at 48%. This drop in approval coincided with the Great Recession. (https://news.gallup.com/poll/217331/labor-union-approval-best-2003.aspx)
Since this dip however, American approval of unions has been on the rise. One 2018 study asked Americans if they thought the reduction of union representation over the past 20 years has been mostly good or mostly bad for working people. The majority of American found that the reduction of union involvement has been mostly bad for workers. The researchers also looked at those views between sex, race, age, income, education, and political party affiliation. For black pollers, 65% percent found the reduction to be mostly bad. For adults under 30, 56% found the reduction to be mostly bad. The sharpest divide was found among political party, where only 34 % of Republicans found the reduction to be mostly bad, compared to 68% of Democrats. (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/06/05/more-americans-view-long-term-decline-in-union-membership-negatively-than-positively/)
While approval is on the rise, the power unions used to hold has diminished in recent years, which is evident in the 2018 Supreme Court case, Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. (https://www.westlaw.com/Document/I3e7265f17a1011e8bbbcd57aa014637b/View/FullText.html?transitionType=Default&contextData=(sc.Default)&VR=3.0&RS=cblt1.0) Mark Janus, an Illinois state non-union employee, argued that the fee he paid to the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) was unconstitutional, as it violated his First Amendment rights. Janus argued the fee was a form of political advocacy that he did not agree with. AFSCME argued that it was obligated by law to represent interests from non-union employees along with union ones. If non-union members were not required to pay the fee, then AFSCME would lose a lot of its funding and still be required to support the interests of those who don’t pay for its services. In July 2018, the Supreme Court found for Janus, stating that it was unconstitutional for public sector unions to force nonunion workers to pay fees. Janus overturned 40 year precedent case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, where the Supreme Court had found those fees to be constitutional. (https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/27/supreme-court-rules-in-janus-labor-union-case.html)
While this ruling is a blow to union representation in America, especially for public employees, this doesn’t mean that unions have given up. Approval for unions, has continued to rise in the past decade, and unions are working harder to reach out to current and prospective members to keep people from dropping out. AFSCME itself is working towards more one-on-one conversations with members to educate them about unions and inform employees about campaigns that are aim to get workers to quit unions. State legislatures are also working with unions, with states like New York, Oregon, and Vermont creating legislation to allow employees to bring cases on the state’s behalf, and states like California and New Jersey granting public-sector unions access to new-hire information to help them with recruiting. (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/27/business/economy/supreme-court-unions-future.html)
The Janus decision is still fresh, and with unions working harder than ever to keep workers interested in the organizations, it’s too soon to tell what the future may hold. It is likely that labor unions will try to continue to work towards increasing American’s perception of unions, with a goal of proving to Americans that not only do unions work, but the benefits outweigh the cost. Americans may have lost the faith for unions they held decades past, but unions will strive to prove that “Working for the Weekend” has another important lyric: Everybody needs a second chance.