When I began representing injured workers at a labor law firm in the 1970s, over one-third of the workforce was unionized. Almost all the workers I represented earned the maximum amount allowable to trigger the maximum workers’ compensation benefit in the event they missed work due to a work injury. Today with Union membership in the United States down to 6.6% of the workforce (about the same rate as at the turn of the 20th Century, few of the workers I represent are “maximum” earners, triggering maximum benefits under workers’ compensation. In fact, many of the workers I represent earn less than $10 per hour, which means their family income falls beneath the national poverty line.
Statistics about economic inequality are staggering. The richest 1% of the nation controls 40% of the wealth and earns 20% of the national income – proportions very similar to those in the early 20th Century (and up from about 25% and 9% in the 1970s when I started representing injured workers). Two recent books attempt to explain what, if anything, can be done to revive unionism. Historian Steve Frazer’s Age of Acquiescence looks at the long sweep of work in the United States. Frazer thinks the labor question is the key to confronting the economic gap and all its political and cultural consequences.
The second book is by a lawyer who represented workers in Chicago, Thomas Geoghegan. Only One Thing Can Save Us suggests we have to return to the early labor union courage to challenge the inequities that surround workers – a spirit that is now largely evaporated. We have abandoned many of the crucial goals of the Progressive years – the rights to minimum wage, a limit on hours, unemployment insurance, and other benefits such as health insurance, pensions, paid vacations – that were won only through collective bargaining.
The decline in unionism has hurt all American workers. About one in ten American workers is now self-employed (the most rapidly growing group in this category are maids and housekeepers, carpenters, landscapers, and hairdressers). Part time workers make up 17% of the labor force. Additionally, workers hired as Independent Contractors (like many at FedEx, for example) are not eligible for unemployment compensation, do not have the right to organize a union, are not guaranteed overtime pay or the minimum wage, and lack access to the employment protections afforded by the Civil Rights Act. Moreover, the employers do not have to contribute to Social Security. We see this abuse often by employers characterizing workers as Independent Contractors who should be employees for whom the workers’ compensation, unemployment compensation premiums and payroll taxes is paid.
Times have changed and certainly not for the better.