Can unions adapt to today’s economic challenges?

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JOHN YANG: On this Labor Day, we turn now to organized labor.

Union membership has been on the decline in the United States for decades: According to the Labor Department, just 11.1 percent of wage and salary workers belonged to a union last year. That’s almost half the union membership rate in the 1980s.

Hari Sreenivasan has our story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For more now on the state of labor, we’re going to by Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, and Harley Shaiken, a professor and labor expert at the University of California, Berkeley.

Professor Shaiken, let me start with you.

When we think of the labor movement, we certainly think that it’s smaller than it used to be, but what are the challenges that the movement is facing today?

HARLEY SHAIKEN, University of California, Berkeley: Well, there are many challenges that are out there right now, but it’s a particularly critical and urgent time for the labor movement and I think for the United States more generally.

Over the last three decades, labor has declined from representing one out of every five members to one out of every 10 today. But recent polls from Bloomberg and others indicate that over half of people polled would like to join a union.

How does that square with 11 percent being in unions? And, here, I think we’re looking at tough employer opposition, laws that don’t facilitate a free choice, and some broader changes in the economy.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Well, Mary Kay Henry, how do you square that gap, if people are interested still in being part of a union, but the reality is that they’re not?

MARY KAY HENRY, President, SEIU: Twenty million people have got more money in their pockets just in the last four years because 200 fast food workers had the guts to make a decision to strike and possibly lose their job, threaten their whole family’s stability, and make a demand that people laughed at four years ago, $15 in a union, and now it’s a standard against which people are organizing saying, hey, why do I have to wait so long to get to $15?

Or, in Birmingham, Alabama, the city council raises wages. The Alabama state legislature overrides it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In Scandinavian countries, they have almost set a wage floor, even without having a minimum wage, because about 80 percent of the people, say, in Denmark are already unionized. Right? The private sector says, to be competitive, I have to raise my wages up.

Is the inverse happening in the United States? With such a small unionized population, it seems the private sector doesn’t see unions as much of a threat or an incentive to try to pull their wages up by themselves.

MARY KAY HENRY: Right.

And the absence of government, working people and employers sharing a vision for what everybody deserves in the country, we have the grossest inequality that our generation has ever seen in this country.

And fast food workers are asking themselves, hey, if McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King can provide $20 in Denmark, where 80 percent of the people have a union, why can’t they do the same thing in the United States of America?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Professor Shaiken, tell us a little bit about how unions are adapting to what’s happening in the sharing economy. Right?

It seems that there was a different relationship that we had with an employer, where perhaps not thinking about working for one company for 40 years to get the Rolex watch, and then we moved into an era where we were thinking, all right, maybe five years, six years.

Now we’re saying, well, I want to dedicate 20 minutes of my time to driving a shared car. And then I might have a difference service that I might provide. What happens to benefits? What happens to that relationship with a union or an employer?

HARLEY SHAIKEN: Well, the sharing economy is a critical challenge for unions today.

The sharing economy is not something that exists in nature. It is also an employer strategy, in many cases, to avoid unions. So, companies such as Uber or Lyft define the jobs in a way where they’re essentially saying part-time workers, flexible workers can’t have a union. They’re independent contractors.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mary Kay Henry, how do you adapt to that? It seems that if you’re bargaining with an employer, one of the fundamentals is, when will my employee actually be here and working for me?

But if we’re walking into a world in the next 15, 20 years where people parse their work out so much, how do you negotiate on their behalf?

MARY KAY HENRY: Independent flat janitors in Chicago got together when their employers were all different building owners, and formed a union and negotiated a contract.

Home care providers were seen as nothing more than servants. They got together, formed an employer, and actually raised wages. So, we believe those same principles need to be applied in the sharing economy.

And our members in many cities around the country are supporting the organizing of Uber drivers or other unions that are working in the sharing economy. It’s 1 percent of the economy right now.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Professor Shaiken, pivoting just a bit to politics, since there is an election coming up, it seems that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump rally their bases by saying, hey, you know what, politicians are not hearing the voices of American workers.

Well, what happened? What created that gap and that opportunity for these two politicians, especially in the context of the union movement?

HARLEY SHAIKEN: Well, I would start by saying these are very different politicians who went in very different directions.

But they both did, as you point out, essentially channel this deep anger, apprehension and frustration that so many people are experiencing. In part, it reflects two things that Mary Kay Henry has pointed to, the extreme inequality that exists in this country.

It’s not really a question of inequality, but extreme inequality that takes us beyond the Gilded Age in some ways, and the immediate manifestation to millions of workers of stagnant or declining wages, and few opportunities to advance themselves, let alone their children.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mary Kay Henry, do unions still have the power to get out the vote, especially in this coming election? And, also, there seems to be a little bit of a fracture, where the leadership of unions might be supporting overwhelmingly Hillary Clinton, while there still seems to be an opportunity for Donald Trump to speak to the base, the rank and file.

MARY KAY HENRY: Seventy percent of SEIU members support Hillary Clinton.

And, yes, the labor unions absolutely do have the power to be an essential part of the entire coalition of partners that needs to make the case to our members about why voting matters to the future for our children and our grandchildren.

And our members all across this country — I will be in Pittsburgh. We are doing phone-banking and door-knocking in L.A. One-on-one communication, based on relationship, we think is turnkey to people understanding why elections matter and why we need to stay in the streets after the election and hold every elected official accountable to an agenda that addresses the worst inequality of our generation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Mary Kay Henry from the SEIU, Harley Shaiken, thank so much for joining us.

HARLEY SHAIKEN: Thank you.

MARY KAY HENRY: Thank you.

JOHN YANG: Online, we get two more views of labor unions and workers’ rights. First, find eight ideas to help workers thrive as labor unions decline, plus an interview with a leading labor organizer about the need to reinvent employee bargaining.

Find that on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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