There is a reason why we have a day called “labor day” and not one called “corporation day.” We do not dedicate a day to the social and economic achievements of entities like Walmart or McDonald’s, because they are not the workhorses that built the country. Organized labor created a way for workers to stand up against oppressive businesses and corporations who sought to exploit them.
It has been no secret that union membership has been in decline over the past few years. Union membership, as a percentage of the workforce, reached a peak of 28.3% in 1954. In 2012, this number was at a 11.3% which is the lowest it has been since 1916.
“Right to Work” laws (RTW) are certainly part of the blame for low union membership. States with Right to Work laws on the books boast some of the lowest union membership numbers in the country. For example, Florida was the first state to enact this type of law in 1946 and in 2012 saw only 5.8% of the total employed workforce as union members. North Carolina, which passed their RTW law in 1947, had only 2.9% of the total employed workforce were members of a union, the lowest in the country. These laws create no incentive for workers to unionize, because free-riders can reap the benefits of a union contract without having to pay dues.
Another reason could be related to corporate perception of unions and the ideologies that those in the corporations hold. Take Massey Energy for example. Massey used to be one of the largest producers of coal in the country before being bought out by Alpha Natural Resources. The former CEO of Massey, Don Blankenship, was actively opposed to unions in the mines. Only 1.8 percent of the Massey workforce was unionized. Massey had a reputation for being union-busters, and were prone to firing union workers and refusing to hire others (which the NLRB determined was illegal). A potential consequence of this attitude was the loss of 25 miners in the Upper Big Branch Mine in 2010, a mine that was not unionized.
Union mines are safer than non-union ones, because the workers can protest working in unfair conditions and have a union rep accompany them to inspect the mines. Just to give you an idea of the safety comparisons for non-union and union mines:
A report from the March 28, 2007, hearing on Protecting the Health and Safety of America’s Mine Workers released by the House Committee on Education and Labor contains the following statistics for the five-year period of 2002-2006:
Underground coal injuries: 19,282
In union mines: 5,362 (or 27.8% of total)
Underground coal fatalities: 109
In union mines: 22 (or 20.2%)
(Thanks to Meteor Blades on DailyKos for the data compilation here)
Coal mines are not the only place union membership is actively discouraged and fought against, several other industries face this as well.
This Labor Day, remember the fight for fairness that organized labor made, and is still making today. Corporations are too big and profit too important for individual workers to have a voice. A balance still needs to be struck in the workplace and individual corporations and state governments have been working hard to tip that in favor of anyone but the workers.