Representing the American Worker


It is a common assertion of American labor unions and their supporters that the unions represent the interests of the common American worker, and serve as a bulwark against the depredations of the elite and powerful. The recent proceedings in Wisconsin (and elsewhere, it seems) have only intensified this rhetoric both from union representatives and from politicians and commentators who support them. This of course led me to wonder how much of the American workforce the unions represent – after all, if the unions are the only thing standing between the downtrodden American worker and the excesses of capitalist greed, it stands to reason that their numbers should be quite impressive, right?

As it turns out, reality is a bit less supportive of this argument, to say the least. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a part of the U.S. Department of Labor, keeps annual statistics regarding the American workforce – including membership statistics for labor unions. [1] According to their Union Members Summary resport [2] for 2010, only 14.7 million American workers were union members; this amount adds up to just 11.9% of the total American workforce in 2010 (approximately 123 million). Of those 14.7 million union workers, 7.6 million were public sector employees (i.e., they were employed by some type of government, either at the Federal or State level), while the remaining 7.1 million were private sector employees. [3] Union membership rates were also substantially higher among public sector employees (36.2%) than they were among private sector employees (6.9%). [4] Of those public sector employees, the highest unionization rates were among those in education, training, and library occupations. Among individual states, New York had the highest union membership rate (24.2%), while North Carolina had the lowest (3.2%). [5]

Given these statistics, it is fair to say that while the unions collectively represent a significant fraction of the American workforce, they by no means support the average American worker, as they commonly claim. I also find it somewhat amusing that their most commonly asserted affiliated image is that of the blue-collar worker, when in fact, the majority of union members are now found in public sector occupations – who are decidedly not engaged manual labor, as the blue-collar label typically implies.

So, if the labor unions don’t represent and/or protect the vast majority of the American workforce, who does? Well, in case you haven’t made the connection yet, the departments mentioned in the second paragraph should be a hint. That’s right! Regardless of union affiliation, all American workers are protected at the Federal level by the U.S. Department of Labor; many American states also have similar governmental departments for their intra-state affairs (both Illinois and Virginia have them, [6] for example). In case that’s not obvious enough for you, here’s the Mission Statement for the USDOL: To foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights. [7] The Illinois Department of Labor makes a similar claim: The mission of the Illinois Department of Labor is to promote and protect the rights, wages, welfare, working conditions, safety and health of Illinois workers through enforcement of the state labor laws, to safeguard the public through regulation of amusement rides, and to ensure compliance with all other labor standards. [8] The Virginia DOLI does not list a similar statement, though it certainly implies the same with the various items listed on their website. The USDOL also (helpfully) lists every scrap of legislation related to workers’ rights and protections that they are charged with enforcing; it is not an unimpressive list. I suspect the various State-level agencies also have similar lists on their websites.

It should also be noted that many professions are almost entirely absent of unions, at least in the traditional sense. My chosen career (architecture) is represented by a professional organization, the American Institute of Architects, but while the AIA does charge an annual membership fee (comparable to union dues in some respects), architects, by and large, are not “organized” labor by any stretch of the imagination – we don’t engage in collective bargaining to demand modifications to our compensation, nor do we go on strike if our demands are not met. Of course, in many professional occupations, the distinction between “labor” and “management” is often far less clearly defined than it is in, say, a factory setting; often, the “management” is composed of the previous “generation” of “labor” that has been promoted up, while a new pool of entry-level employees has been brought in to fill the recently vacated “labor” slots.

My point here is that one could easily be forgiven the notion that labor unions are increasingly irrelevent in our current employment environment. Given that I am (clearly) a conservative, it may seem surprising for me to note that I have no fundamental disagreement with the original purpose of labor unions; when they were first organized, labor unions did indeed provide a valuable counterbalance to the actions of the rather unscrupulous managing class, particularly in the 19C. That being said, with the plethora of State and Federal legislation enshrining worker protections by law, it does seem rather redundant to also have unions to represent and protect workers’ rights.

So why are the unions still fighting so hard to keep their entrenched positions? I suspect there are some who truly believe that they are still “fighting the good fight,” as the saying goes, though I also suspect that it has much more to do with power than with anything else. If the unions were to abdicate their responsibilities as redundant with State and Federal workers’ rights protections, they would also have to relinquish their positions of authority and influence in the political arena – and there are damn few individuals to whom the siren song of political influence and/or power is not appealing. Perhaps, a better question nowadays is whether or not the unions are necessary as a political force – certain commentators on the Left have been quite fond of arguing that without the “balancing” influence of organized labor, American political proceedings would be awash with undue influence from big corporations and the like, while the average American would have no voice of their own. [9] Whether or not this is a good thing, I’ll leave to you to decide; I just think that if this is the primary function of unions these days, they should be honest about it, and not cling to the outdated claim that they represent the average American worker – because they don’t.


[1]: Hey, with the name, “Bureau of Labor Statistics,” what did you think they were doing with their time? Hand-stitching designer sweaters?

[2]: Summary report available here, from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics website; note that this report is formatted in html, so you don’t need to worry about those pesky PDFs (there is, however, a PDF version available via link there, in case you really, really want one).

[3]: Per the attached Table 3, available here; again, the link is formatted in html for your convenience.

[4]: Ibid

[5]: Per the attached Table 5, available here; also formatted in html. Incidentally, I was also interested to note that Illinois has a rather high unionization rate (16.4%) – unsurprisingly – while Virginia has a rather low one (5.7%). Ah, yet another reason why I sometimes miss living in Virginia.

[6]: Illinois Department of Labor website available here; Virginia Department of Labor and Industry website available here.

[7]: No, really…there’s even a whole page devoted just to this statement.

[8]: IDOL is a little less grandiose about it, though they do list their mission statement right at the top of the introductory page…

[*]: I should also point out that many professionals are exempted (PDF warning; see §213 for exemptions) from Federal labor laws regarding minimum wage and overtime compensation – two of the most cherished accomplishments of the unions’ fight for workers’ rights protection. Mostly, this is because professionals tend to be employed in fixed-salary positions with a guaranteed weekly compensation, but this also provides managers in such fields a substantial loophole. I’m sure most of you have heard about folks working 60 or 80 hours a week at a law firm (architecture firms can be just as demanding); what you don’t often hear is that the individuals working those sorts of hours aren’t getting paid anything more for those 20 or more additional hours they’ve worked for that week. As an example, starting salaries in architectural firms tends to be somewhere around $30,000 per year (location dependent, of course); this works out to approximately $14.50 / hour before taxes (30,000 / 52 = 576.92; 576.92 / 40 = 14.42). Of course, that $14.50 / hour is predicated on the work week being 40 hours; if one works for 60 hours, the rate drops to $9.62 / hour; if one works for 80 hours, the rate drops to $7.21 / hour. It should be noted that current minimum wage regulations peg the wage at $7.25 / hour before taxes. The most I ever worked in one week was just a hair under 90 hours in six days; at the time, I was earning approximately $15 / hour for a 40-hour-week salary – effectively, my hourly wage for that week was approximately $6.75 /hour…which, in case you need it spelled out for you, is below minimum wage. Additionally, in one six-month period, I worked well over 200 additional hours on top of my “standard” work week, for which I received compensation of…nothing at all. At my effective wage at that time, that works out to over $3,500 worth of work that the company got out of me for free. Cheery thought, ain’t it?

[9]: I could probably track down sources for this, but I really don’t feel like it. If you need graphic illustration of these claims, just check out the commentary shows on MSNBC. They’re quite unabashed about their chosen position on this issue.

[**]: Yes, I do recognize the irony of this post and yesterday’s one…immediately after announcing that I’ll be focusing primarily on photographic endeavors, I go and write up a post like this. My timing, as always, is awesome.


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