Thursday, August 11, 2022

Organize the Unions


A new report from Chris Bohner, who runs the labor research firm Radish Research, has done an amazing service by systematically assembling thousands of financial records from unions over the past decade to assemble a report that gives the most comprehensive picture.

The report shows that even as union density has continued its long decline over the past decade, the financial coffers of unions have expanded. That money, however, has not been used to do the organizing necessary to prevent all of those unions from shrinking.

 Key findings: 

  • Since 2010, union density has declined from almost 12% to just over 10%, and there are more than 700,000 fewer union members as an absolute number. Yet the finances of unions are only improving: In 2020, organized labor had $35.8 billion in assets, and $6.8 billion in liabilities, leaving approximately $29.1 billion in net assets.” That figure has almost doubled since 2010. That growth has been driven primarily by increased dues income, as wages and salaries rise, as well as investment income. 
  • During the same time period, however, there has been no investment in the army of union organizers necessary to meet demand. “[Organized] labor employs 23,440 fewer employees in 2020 compared to 2010, a 19% decline in the workforce (with a steep drop in 2020 likely due to the pandemic). However, management positions within organized labor have increased by 28%, with more than 10,000 employees earning a gross salary over $125,000.” Union assets have swelled because they have not chosen to spend: As total revenues increased by 28%, total spending has only increased by 17% since 2010.”
  • As union density has declined in the past half-century, so too have the number of major strikes in America — the number of workers involved in major work stoppages has fallen from a high of 1.8 million in 1974 to just 80,000 in 2021. Just as unions have not used their surplus of money to bolster organizing, the report finds that they have also failed to invest in supporting strikes: “[Financial] filings show that organized labor paid out an average of $70 million a year in strike benefits since 2010, less than half-a-percent of net assets or revenues in most years.”
The $29.1 billion in net assets for unions, by the way, does not include the value of union pensions — which hold trillions of dollars in assets themselves. Those pension assets could and should be strategically invested with the goal of strengthening the labor movement.

 Those tens of billions, though, could accomplish a lot. Bohner, in his report, has a few suggestions: Hiring 20,000 new union organizers ($1.4 billion per year), supercharging spending on strike benefits ($1 billion per year), and funding a new $3 billion entity (or entities) that could engage in riskier civil disobedience activities, like illegal strikes, secondary boycott activities, or defying restrictive court injunctions on picketing and protest.”

The conclusion of the report is that:
 "There is no “One Big Union,” but over ten thousand union entities grouped in over 100 union affiliations. Some unions have doubled down on spending, others have run large surpluses and kept their spending lower than the growth in revenue. Unions in growing sectors have prospered, other unions have struggled to maintain relevancy in declining sectors. Nevertheless, looking at organized labor collectively, the trends are clear: over the last decade, labor has nearly doubled its net assets, run large surpluses, reduced the workforce while increasing pay at the top, and spent less than the rate of inflation–all while union membership has declined.
Rather than from leaders at the top like Shuler, change is most likely to come from the broad movement of workers striking against global corporations in defiance of their union leadership, and winning, such as at Deere and Kellog; reform movements seeking to democratize their bloated and/or corrupt union bureaucracies (such as the Teamsters and UAW); public sectors workers, many without a formal union, disobeying state bans on strikes (like the Red Ed teacher strikes); members defying the political directives of their union leadership to back left candidates offering real structural change (like the members of the Culinary Workers Union supporting Bernie Sanders in the 2020 caucus); the autonomous wildcat labor actions during the pandemic by “unorganized” workers; independent unions like the Amazon Labor Union defying conventional wisdom and winning at one of the most powerful companies in the world; and most critically, the young workers and union organizers who are impatient for change, intolerant of bureaucratic hierarchies, and far more open to consider alternatives to capitalism than a union leadership still trapped in the ideological straightjacket of the Cold War. It is this constellation of forces that could seize the assets from a labor movement that has failed to seize the moment."

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