Developed nations are witnessing a steep decline in labor union participation. Labor unions are organized groups of workers who negotiate decisions concerning their working conditions. From 1985 to 2017, union membership declined by 13%. Several factors have contributed to this decline, however, labor unions are important as they play a role in reducing poverty across the world.

The Decline in Labor Unions

The recent trend toward globalization has admittedly fostered business competitiveness. However, this threatens labor unions due to the belief that unionization can harm a company’s ability to compete internationally. This belief stems from the strong negotiating power of unions, forcing companies to pay and treat their workers well, which many international companies do not have to do. In addition, organizational and technological changes have threatened union longevity. The final contributing factor is the decline of the manufacturing sector, a sector that is more likely to support unionization than other industries.

Along with the organizational factors contributing to the decrease in labor unions, the societal understanding of the value of labor unions is also decreasing. In part due to mass propaganda campaigns and anti-labor advertising unleashed by businesses in the last three decades, there is a growing sentiment that these organizations are no longer useful or necessary. This sentiment poses a direct threat to workers throughout the world as these organizations play an important role in poverty reduction.

Decrease in Economic Inequality

Labor unions play an important role in decreasing economic inequality. Unions provide people with the power to negotiate, which in turn, strengthens the middle class and increases salaries for blue-collar workers. Unions give power to people in lower positions in companies so they can negotiate and work for better wages. Unionized workers are typically able to raise their wages by 20% through negotiation.

White-collar workers do not reap the same benefits and labor unions play an important role in stopping runaway incomes for people at the top. This gives power to the middle class and reduces the power of the top 1%. Not only do higher wages for blue-collar workers support the workers themselves but they also boost economic mobility for future generations. By empowering workers to collectively bargain for higher wages, labor unions have played a vital role in the rise of the middle class.


Because members of labor unions can negotiate better benefits, they are 30% more likely to have healthcare benefits than non-union workers. Additionally, these healthcare benefits are typically higher quality than baseline coverage. On average, unionized workers are more likely to have health plans, including dental and vision care. Quality health insurance plays an important role in reducing the risk of poverty. The CDC finds that workers who possess and utilize health plans are more productive. Increased productivity among workers provides a foundation for educational and workplace success.

Along with increasing productivity, quality healthcare can reduce the risk of medical debt-induced poverty. Medical coverage for working adults can also cover the worker’s children. This is important as children who have medical coverage are less likely to develop chronic health conditions. Through family care, labor unions provide workers and their families the resources necessary to remain in good health, achieve success and protect their futures.

Work-Life Balance

Labor unions provide workers with the chance to negotiate better working conditions, including more paid time off. Unionized workers have 26.6% more vacation time on average than non-unionized workers. This time off is important for a work-life balance, overall longevity and family time. Children who spend quality time with their parents are more likely to be physically healthy and are less likely to partake in risky behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse. Furthermore, these children are more likely to stay in school and achieve academic success, helping them secure well-paying jobs in the future. By supporting a work-life balance, labor unions ensure that households have a pathway out of poverty.

In these ways, labor unions play a vital role in reducing poverty. By increasing wages, strengthening the middle class, providing healthcare access and facilitating quality family time, labor unions can help people break cycles of poverty.

– Haylee Ann Ramsey-Code
Photo: Flickr

Labor unions support the Jones ActThe Jones Act made headlines in the past month, an impressive feat for an obscure law almost a century old. The law requires a certain amount of U.S. ships to deliver aid and trade to other parts of the world. Lawmakers of the 20th century designed the act to protect the finances of U.S. maritime industries.

Puerto Rico has been in dire need of aid since Hurricane Maria hit the island. It requested an extension of a Jones Act waiver during the crisis, so emergency supply delivery would not be impeded. The federal U.S. government denied this request.

Defenders of the Jones Act include the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, the Inland Boatmen’s Union and the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific. U.S. labor unions support the Jones Act, believing the 1920s legislation protects U.S. jobs. However, the Jones Act does not help labor like it used to.

The Capital Research Center, in its outline of the Jones Act, notes why labor unions find this regulation so appealing. Its supporters declare that national defense depends on both a strong navy and a healthy maritime industry and that lifting such protections would result in significant job loss. However, what is good for overseas shipping is not necessarily good for the United States. The International Trade Commission discovered in 1995 that the Jones Act cost the U.S. $2.8 billion each year. Moreover, the restrictions caused ridiculous situations where lumber had to be trucked from Maine to Florida before it could then be sent to Puerto Rico by boat. The Jones Act has not stopped American generosity and trade, but it has certainly made both acts much harder. Even people given jobs by the U.S. maritime industry are hurt by rising gas and food prices from the $2.8 billion price tag.

Are these sacrifices worth enduring if the results lead to the survival of the shipbuilding industry? Linda Lingle, the former governor of Hawaii, believed that repealing the Jones Act would put American shipping companies out of business. But perhaps the Jones Act is not helping in that regard. Since 1946, the U.S. maritime industry removed roughly 2,000 vessels from its service, leaving it in 2007 with a fleet of fewer than 200. During that period of time, 200,000 jobs and 60 American shipyards were lost in the industry. According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, a “Jones Act repeal would affect about 2,450 laborers in the coastwise shipping trade and would cost only 36 jobs in the shipbuilding industry.”

Matthew Paxton, the president of the Shipbuilder’s Council of America, cannot deny the vestigial nature of the Jones Act even while defending it. Paxton explained to the Washington Examiner why labor unions support the Jones Act in September 2017. But he acknowledges that the shipbuilding business has shifted to Asian countries in the previous three decades. “The U.S. shipbuilders know they can’t compete fairly, so they rely on the federal government to keep this thing going,” said Paxton.

Ultimately, the Jones Act protects few jobs at the expense of the needs of the many. Richard Rowland, of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, states, “Greater competition in shipping would bring down prices and make the business climate more investor-friendly. Really, the only one being helped by the Act are the shipping interests.” If labor unions support the Jones Act for its protected jobs, then labor unions will have to question if Puerto Rico’s poverty is a fair cost.

– Nick Edinger

Photo: Flickr

Minimum Wage in MexicoThe second round of NAFTA renegotiations closed Sept. 5 with major disagreements between the three countries left unresolved. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. has pushed U.S. negotiators to introduce a provision guaranteeing a living wage for all workers in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. A higher minimum wage in Mexico would greatly impact the country’s businesses that profit from the cheap labor supply.

Gerardo Gutierrez Candiani, head of Mexico’s special economic zones, told U.S. and Canadian negotiators that Mexico will not adjust its current labor laws. Stricter labor standards is a U.S. priority in the trade renegotiation.

Mexico’s low wages give the country a competitive advantage over its NAFTA trading partners. A higher minimum wage in Mexico could protect U.S. producers by forcing Mexican competitors to raise prices in response to domestic wage increases. The minimum wage in Mexico is 80 pesos a day ($4.50).

Mexican political and corporate leaders support a low minimum wage as a way to encourage businesses to move operations into the country. Corporations located in Mexico can keep production costs low by utilizing the country’s cheap labor supply. These businesses can then undercut their competitors on foreign markets.

Mexico’s automobile industry is the main source of the country’s trade surplus with the U.S. Mexican auto workers earn, on average, $6 an hour while U.S. auto workers earn $28 an hour. Closing the wage gap between the two countries would make U.S. automobile manufacturers more competitive in the international market.

In addition to a higher minimum wage in Mexico, the U.S. is also likely to push for worker protections like the right to unionize and strike. Mexico has some worker protection laws in place, but existing policies are loosely enforced. Workers who push for higher wages or improved conditions by participating in strikes are usually fired. Existing labor unions are ineffective negotiators because leaders are often chosen by political officials through rigged elections.

Opponents to new labor laws fear that rising wages will halt economic development as businesses leave for countries with cheaper labor. They argue that Mexico’s competitive advantage over the U.S. and Canada will disappear naturally as the country undergoes economic growth.

Despite Mexican officials’ resistance, the U.S. remains focused on including better worker standards in the trade pact’s renegotiation. The proposed policy has the potential to significantly improve the standard of living for the average Mexican citizen.

Katherine Parks

Photo: Flickr

The Solidarity Center is dedicated to helping workers around the world build a shared prosperity in both their local and global economies.

Workers who struggle to find safe and healthy job sites as well as family-supporting wages have concerns that far too often go unheard.

This nonprofit aims to help these workers find their voice on the job, working with unions, worker associations and community groups worldwide to achieve equitable and sustainable development.

Since 1997, the Solidarity Center has made it their mission to stand up for international worker rights so that workers can gain the social protections they need to improve their working and living conditions.

With programs expanding across some 60 countries, the Solidarity Center provides workers a range of education and training that focus on the following: worker rights, union skills, occupational safety and health, economic literacy, human trafficking, women’s empowerment and bolstering workers in an informal economy.

In addition, they provide research, legal support and other resources that help build strong trade unions and more equitable societies.

More specifically, the Solidarity Center assists unions with strengthening internal structures, like gender parity, and helping workers recover stolen wages or benefits illegally denied to them. They also connect migrant workers to protective networks to decrease vulnerability. Most importantly, they boost advocacy efforts so that campaigns can go beyond borders.

These examples can be found in a short bullet-point list on the Solidarity Center’s website, where one can also find the annual reports they conduct for each country that they work in.

In addition, the Solidarity Center keeps their news and events up-to-date, a testament to how actively involved they are in their work.

Recently, the Solidarity Center received the biggest testament to their efforts when President Barack Obama spoke at the 2014 Clinton Global Initiative about the need to develop young civil society leaders.

The first person that he recognized as a contributor to the development of his community was Solidarity Center’s own Walid Ahmed Ali, a Kenyan social justice activist.

President Obama congratulated him on his work in creating jobs at the Kenya-Somali border for unemployed youth, telling him that he “strives not just for the idea of democracy,” but “to cement the practice of democracy.”

At the Solidarity Center, you’ll find people like Walid Ahmed Ali who do just that. Though not all can be recognized in the same manner, everyone is fully committed to helping working men and women to be a force for democracy and shared prosperity.

If you believe that all people who work should receive the rewards of their work – decent paychecks and befits, safe jobs, respect and fair treatment – then visit the Solidarity Center to learn how you can get involved in creating a more inclusive economic development.

– Chelsee Yee

Sources: Solidarity Center, ALFCIO
Photo: Bangor Daily News


Since the middle of the 19th century, when the industrial revolution first made significant impacts on social and economic life in the United States, labor unions have been respected and efficacious models of worker unification. That being said, the industrial revolution is old news. The digital revolution, also known as the third industrial revolution, has taken hold of modern lives. Jobs have become more specific and machines have replaced human workers in certain unskilled positions.

So what role does the union play in today’s economy? To understand, it is necessary to know how unions have always worked.

Unions have, since their inception, been organizations of workers dedicated to maintaining and, if need be, improving working conditions. They run a bit like mini-democracies: elected officials make decisions on behalf of the workers who elect them. Also like most democracies, workers pay for membership. They do this with tax-esque, regular payments, much of which go to those of the union’s staff members who aren’t volunteers.

The goals of unions are simple: to better working conditions. This mission can take many shapes, including pushing for increases in minimum wage and in worker productivity (often done by administering training programs), as well as trade restrictions, such as government-imposed tariffs and quotas. Tariffs are special taxes on imported or exported goods. Quotas are limits on the amount of a certain good that can be imported or exported.

Although there are basic goals common amongst most, if not all, unions, there are several varieties. These organizations represent, after all, different quantities and qualities of professional workers. As a small sampling, unions represent mechanics, teachers, factory workers, office workers, actors, musicians, police officers, construction workers, janitors, writers, doctors, engineers, plumbers and pharmacists, as well as countless others.

Local unions are comprised of local workers, usually bound by sector and region, not employer. They typically receive a charter from a national or international union before forming. There are over 60 national and international unions across the United States and Canada, representing millions of professionals.

Of these local and broad coalitions, there are slightly more specific trade and industrial unions. Trade unions represent workers who work a specific trade, such as those represented by The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. Industrial unions, alternatively, represent workers who work a specific industry, including those represented by The United Auto Workers.

During the first industrial revolution, unions began to form alongside companies operating within steel mills, textile factories, mines and other heavily regulated environments. Because of this, unions are often associated with the “old economy,” but the new economy is, of course, where unions must work today.

As small and medium sized businesses outside of manufacturing become more prevalent, unions become increasingly general and must represent a much wider range of employees. This makes collective bargaining, a technique unions employ to facilitate negotiations between employers and employees, a more difficult task than it used to be. Naturally, since there are more managers with whom to negotiate and more potential hangups to avoid, the process may be elongated. Settlements may become compromised as unions juggle an array of workers.

These effects, however, are mostly speculative. In general, the union has been and continues to be, at least for today, an effective and empowering tool workers use and need.

– Adam Kaminski

Sources: Investopedia, Union Plus
Photo: The Century Foundation

Following recent labor union protests in Bolivia, demanding an increase in the minimum wage, President Evo Morales has acquiesced to their demands by increasing the Bolivian minimum wage 20 percent from 1,200 Bolivianos (around $175) to 1,488 Bolivianos (about $215). This increase in the minimum wage has come as a result of a small but concerted effort on behalf of the Bolivian Central Labor Union to agitate for change. Workers were concerned that their wages were not keeping up with inflation, which is currently sitting at 6.5 percent.

Morales explained the reason for the increase in the minimum wage is the economic growth Bolivia has experienced recently, which grew at a rate of 5.2 percent in 2012.

The leader of the Bolivian Central Labor Union, Juan Carlos Trujillo, stated that he asked Morales to recognize “the need and the obligation to create a salary structure which is based on the country’s growth and the recognition that the riches of Bolivia have to be shared between the haves and the have-nots in equal measure.”

Other groups were not so pleased with the announced rise in the minimum wage, saying that the move would simply result in workers paying more through taxes. Moreover, the move can also be seen as political maneuvering and as an attempt to curry favor amongst the workers in time for presidential elections in October, when Morales is going to run for a third term.

The original proposal by the government was for the minimum wage to be increased by 10 percent, until trade unions negotiated a higher rise. Analysts have noted that the increase in the minimum wage would not affect the majority of workers since most people earn above 1,400 Bolivianos (about $203.) The rise would affect house workers and trash men.

Morales himself was a notable leader in the cocalero trade union movement for indigenous coca growers prior to being elected president. Since being elected president in 2006, Morales has helped triple Bolivia’s gross domestic product to $27 billion.

– Jeff Meyer

Sources: La Razon, BBC, Bolivia Information Forum
Photo: Nation of Change