Labor Day reflections – are unions passé?

Labor unions may be under siege, but equalizing force they provide still necessary, says labor law expert at Washington University in St. Louis

Labor Day may celebrate the historical contributions of the American labor movement, but the future of the movement is in question.

“Unions are under siege,” says labor and employment law expert Marion Crain, JD, the Wiley B. Rutledge Professor of Law at Washington University in St. Louis.

“In the public sector, governors seeking to slash budgets are de-authorizing state labor laws that govern the organizing and bargaining rights of state employees. In the private sector, both the federal legislation that supports union action and the administrative body that enforces the law are under attack. Union density is on a dramatic downswing.”

Crain, the director of the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Work & Social Capital at WUSTL, reflects on the meaning of Labor Day:


“Unions formed to challenge the dramatic wealth inequality between business owners and workers that characterized the 19th-century social condition,” she says.

“Most working families — children, as well as adults — labored under oppressive and dangerous conditions: seven days and 60-plus hours per week, for pennies an hour, in workplaces with overtly dangerous conditions.

“Unions fought to change these conditions: to raise wages, to reduce hours, to enhance worker safety on the job. As they matured, unions partnered with the civil rights movement to battle entrenched racial segregation and discrimination in employment.”

Today, an array of statutes protects the vast majority of workers against such abuses. Unions played a key role in obtaining such protections, and in defending them against political challengers.

Crain notes that The Fair Labor Standards Act (establishing a minimum wage and the right to overtime pay for hours worked in excess of 40 per week), the Occupational Safety and Health Act (establishing standards for safe workplaces), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, sex, national origin and religion) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (offering job protection for unpaid medical and family-care-related leave) are among the many legislative achievements that would not exist without the advocacy of labor unions.

Economic issues such as living wages, job security, health insurance and pension benefits are left to individual negotiation.

“Individual workers are relatively powerless to negotiate with corporate employers who hold the purse strings to desperately needed jobs, and many workers willingly sacrifice anything to get and keep a job,” Crain says.

“Unions, however, are able to capitalize on the collective strength of the group to negotiate collective bargaining agreements that guarantee job security and establish benefit packages that include health insurance, pension coverage, vacation pay and paid family leave. Once obtained, these important benefits are often extended across entire industries or sectors by employers competing to attract the best workers.

“Unions thus play an important role as watchdogs for workers’ rights, and are the most effective vehicle for extending those rights beyond the minimum floor prescribed by employment legislation.”

Crain says that labor unions are widely credited with creating and sustaining a strong middle class in America.

“Autoworkers, steelworkers, coalminers, nurses, teachers, and many others enjoy a middle-class standard of living because of their collectively-bargained wage and benefit packages,” she says.

“Labor unions are workers’ voice in the legislatures, offering the only political institution that seeks to counterbalance the growing political and economic influence of corporations.”

Wealth and income inequality continues to be a struggle for unions.

“Wage inequality — the gap between the highest income and lowest income workers within demographic groups, controlling for education and other factors — has not been higher since the Great Depression,” Crain says.

“New research suggests that increases in wage inequality are closely linked to the decline in union membership and power. Clearly, American workers need unions for the vital role they play as an equalizing force in the modern labor market.”