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State of the Unions

Since the 1970s, union membership has fallen drastically. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only 10.3% of salary and wage workers were members of unions in 2019.[1]Much of this has been attributed to globalization and automation; in a fast-changing world, careers are no longer tied to singular organizations, and employers are less incentivized to seek lifelong employees. Firms seek to vertically disintegrate for the sake of flexibility; bureaucracy and mobile organizational structures are prioritized over stable employment. This severely weakens the bargaining leverage that unions once had.

In the upcoming election, it is still necessary to recognize the crucial role that organized labor could fulfill. Unions can turn the tides of the election and candidates know this. Moderate Democratic hopefuls include more policies to strengthen collective action than those of any other election cycle in recent history. If unions wish to spur growth in prevalence, they need solidarity now more than ever.

This year, not a single big union has endorsed a particular candidate. When the SEIU endorsed Clinton in 2016, the union drew fire from rank-and-file members who supported Sanders. However, smaller collectives and chapters have begun to roll in. The changing pattern in union endorsements profoundly impacts the influence of smaller bodies of organized labor. Instead of using the top-heavy approach from 2016, large national unions are considering the endorsements of smaller local chapters. Not only does this benefit the solidarity of the labor movement, but smaller organizations that are capable of fast growth are now receiving more political presence. On an individual level, unions are also changing up their strategy by polling individual members to better understand their views, which hopefully leads to better representation and stronger solidarity.

However, these strategies are limited as they simply help unions develop a stance; not only can unions choose the best candidate, but they also have the power to create the best candidate. While organized labor is a collective effort, union members must contribute individual stakes in order to change political policy and platforms. Strikes and roundtable discussions must continue to bring visibility to labor issues.

As unions face the pressures of globalization and automation, they must contribute something to firms and lawmakers that machines cannot. To retain and recruit new members, they must show workers that they can influence and create change, and this upcoming election is the best time to capitalize on potential changes.


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