Across the country in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan, workers unions have launched protests against political and employer efforts to chip away at something the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights considers a fundamental right: collective bargaining.
Firefighters in Colorado Springs are gathering signatures to preserve their right to union negotiation. Teachers in Iowa flood school board meetings wearing red to call for the same. Doctors, transportation workers, and even professional football players are preparing to grapple with their own battles. And with an executive order further undermining federal workers’ union rights hung up in the courts and more states eyeing their restrictions, collective bargaining rights have never seemed more vulnerable in the U.S.
While grocery and fast food chain workers have had their share of upheaval, private sector collective agreements are insured by the National Labor Relations Act. On the other hand, public sector unions are governed by what the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) calls a complicated “hodge-podge of state-and-local legal frameworks” that leaves plenty of room for political maneuvering with little transparency.
Some states—notably North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia—have gone so far as to formally outlaw collective bargaining on behalf of firefighters, police, and teachers’ unions. Experts from Cornell University and the London School of Economics and Political Science suggest that the inability of unions to negotiate for better pay or working conditions has historically lead to a degeneration of all workers’ rights, unionized or not.
Here is a closer look at what collective bargaining means for the American worker and why it is so important to protect it.
According to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO), collective bargaining refers to the process by which worker unions negotiate contracts defining the terms of employment with employers. These agreements can touch upon all components of work, including pay, benefits, leave, basic workplace health, and safety policies. The results of these negotiations have wide-reaching implications for a myriad of U.S. workers regardless of their membership status. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that more than 34 percent of public and less than 7 percent of private workers are union members, yet the AFL–CIO estimates that three-quarters of private-sector and two-thirds of public-sector employees are impacted by collective bargaining.
Unionization—and, in turn, collective bargaining—pays off. According to the BLS, union members’ median weekly earnings were more than $200 higher than non-union workers in 2017. Meanwhile, the Economic Policy Institute credits the erosion of collective bargaining with the suppression of wage growth for middle-income workers: hourly worker productivity grew by 64 percent between 1979 and 2014, yet their inflation-adjusted hourly wage increased by just 6 percent.
Other significant benefits of collective bargaining, as reported by the CEPR, Cornell University, and NBC, among others, include:
As researchers at Cornell put it, studies indicate that collective, representative bargaining “can improve worker outcomes across… pay, job security, and control or discretion, as well as patterns of pay inequality and the distribution of risk.”
Despite its broader benefits, collective bargaining has its critics. Better wages and staffing cost companies more, which some argue makes them less competitive. Collective bargaining also requires a high degree of organization and representation—something critics argue are not necessarily fair across a diverse workforce.
Finally, union activities cost money, and that means member dues. Political pressure has mobilized many unions to support and donate to certain parties and candidates, which means a worker’s mandatory dues might be funneled to a candidate or ideology he or she does not support on the whole.
Such arguments have generated a barrage of proposed legislation that would prevent unions from contributing to political parties and give workers more freedom to opt out of union funding and activities. Unfortunately, these same laws would limit unions’ voices—voices governed largely by workers’ votes—and sway in matters that impact their ability to protect their members. Given the union track-record for improving workers’ lives, this would be a substantial loss.
Events in other nations also suggest that employers freed from collective bargaining responsibilities do not redistribute money into the economy or improve global competition as some suggest. Instead, they tend to find ways to pay workers less, increasing economic disparity between workers and higher management.
Germany serves as an excellent example of what might happen when collective bargaining rights are diminished. According to the European Union’s National Industry Relations, industry-level collective bargaining agreements in Germany have fallen by nearly 20 percent in the last two decades. These contracts have historically regulated a range of issues, including pay structures, work hours, and training.
Cornell reports that as bargaining coverage fell, low-wage work grew—a shift that disproportionately impacted women and non-standard workers. Employers have begun resisting unions and demanding their concessions, funneling work to lower-cost, non-union subcontractors and low-wage temporary workers.
Finally, after sustained pressure, German unions convinced the government to form a coalition that would increase the national minimum wage. While the new rate went into effect in 2015, employers were still allowed to pay workers under collective agreements less for another two years.
When it comes to modeling the best outcomes of collective bargaining, Europe reigns, particularly within the Nordic countries. The countries with the highest collective bargaining coverage and unionization rates are Denmark, Finland, and Sweden. These countries are also ranked as some of the best countries in which to work by the International Trade Union Confederation and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Sweden has a long, healthy history of unionization among its workers. According to the Labour Research Department and the European Trade Union Institute, its overall level of coverage of collective bargaining rights is estimated at 90 percent. These agreements protect employees’ interests in everything from pay and workplace safety to training and technology use.
Swedish citizens tend to truly embrace the spirit of unionization, staging “sympathy” strikes and boycotts on behalf of more vulnerable groups, such as industries with a high degree of subcontracting. Thanks to its unions and extensive collective bargaining prowess, Sweden’s workforce is one of the most equitable in the world and enjoys some of the most generous social and professional benefits, such as paid parental leave and health coverage.
Workers unions, large and small, are already fighting the good fight to preserve collective bargaining rights, whether by staging protests or strikes or by supporting union-friendly political movements and informational campaigns. By participating in one of these unions, you are already helping. However, just as you need not be in a union to benefit from its work, you need not join one to support them.
Join online and regional activist groups to learn more about local and national strikes or protests on behalf of unions under fire, like teacher, firefighter, and police groups. You can also share your thoughts with your state and federal representatives with authority to vote on crucial legislation affecting collective bargaining rights. Visit the National Conference of State Legislatures for an updated list of all active legislation on collective agreements and unionization.