Here is the state of unionized United States.
In 2011, the union membership rate–the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of a union–was 11.8 percent, essentially unchanged from 11.9 percent in 2010. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions [was] at 14.8 million… In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent and there were 17.7 million union workers.
In 2011, 7.6 million employees in the public sector belonged to a union, compared with 7.2 million union workers in the private sector. The union membership rate for public-sector workers (37.0 percent) was substantially higher than the rate for private-sector workers (6.9 percent)….Among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $938, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $729.
The role of unions has been a source of much debate. Some find unions not so important to the modern economy, with such a relatively small percentage of workers currently unionized. Others note that this declining union membership parallels the sharp decline in the share of the country’s income going to the middle class; I count myself in the latter group.
This generates the question, Why did labor unions start in the first place? “Labor unions are associations of workers who are banded together for the purpose of improving their employment conditions and protecting themselves and their coworkers from economic and legal exploitation.” Unions are almost always formed as a reaction to a situation.
There definitely has been hostility towards unions in recent years. A Kenneth Cole fashion ad managed to dis teachers and their unions. A local newspaper writer got into a bit of a kerfuffle over her anti-union remarks.
I have been watching events in the state of Wisconsin with fascination. First, the people elected an anti-union governor, Scott Walker in 2010. Then, as he attempted to make draconian cuts to the budget, and paint union members less than favorably (an understatement), a massive and sustained protest of workers – teachers, firefighters and many others – literally rocked the statehouse. Now, over a million Wisconsinites signed on to try to recall the governor, in an election, coincidentally being held today.
The librarians at the Albany Public Library have had a union for less than two decades, and it was initiated by the weather. On Saturday, March 13, 1993, there was a warning for a severe snowstorm in Albany, from a storm which already had pelted locations as far south as Alabama and Florida with severe weather. The city had told people to get off the roads. The library director, who I’ll call Bill, could not be reached. The librarians made a collective decision to close the facilities early, and it was a good thing: the airport received over 26 inches (over 2/3 of a meter) of snow in what has been dubbed The Storm of the Century. The autocratic director was furious that the staff had acted without his say-so, and took disciplinary action against some employees. Though the punishment was later rescinded (I believe) because of negative publicity, this became the impetus for a union at APL.
No doubt there have been excesses in unions over the years – my first image of union involved tough guy Jimmy Hoffa – but unions also can advocate for a fair shake in a manner that individual workers simply cannot.