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Union decline hits U.S. in the wallets

Union membership has declined by 50 percent from 1983 to 2016; in 1983 it was 20.1 percent, in 2016 only 10.7 percent. Membership in 2016 was 14.6 million. In 1983 there were 17.7 million union workers.

This decline reflects Republican ideology favoring ownership and owner’s influences. Republican Gov. Scott Walker showed this, for example, by proposing and passing a bill to limit union membership for state employees of Wisconsin (e.g., teachers). Donald Trump’s populist followers also resist unions that strike Big Business for better wages and working conditions.

Union membership in the private sector has dropped by 4 million from 1983 to 2016, but there has been a rise of about 1.5 million in the public sector for the same period. Teachers nationally are 38 percent unionized (probably near 100% in New York), and 34 percent of police officers, firefighters, correctional officers, and security guards are unionized.

The median salary for a non-union worker is 20% less than what a union employee makes. This figure has remained fairly constant from 1983 to 2016! The average weekly salary in 2016 for a union worker was $1,004, while a non-union worker received $802. It hasn’t changed much under Trump’s fake-news tax cuts! These went mainly to Big Business (FedEx paid no taxes). Union membership in New York for 2016 is 23.6% and for South Carolina 1.6%. This picture is uncharacteristic of social democracies in other developed nations.

Social Democracies (such as the “Nordic Model”: Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland) are “capitalistic.” But they are committed to curbing inequality, and to eliminating poverty and any oppressing of underprivileged groups in their countries. Social welfare protects everyone! These governments invest in what is often a controlling share of important industries, such as electricity. This allows them to influence, for example, unfair price manipulation. They also often own their national airlines (big-time capitalism).

The political and economic philosophy of social democracy seeks to remedy the many negative side effects of capitalism-especially poverty and inequality. They thus provide social welfare to promote a unified socioeconomic society. The leading measures of this social welfare are free higher education (no tuition, plus students’ living expenses), free (or subsidized) health care that eliminates catastrophic expenses (in the U.S. that lead to debt) and include subsidized prescription drugs. Generous retirement pensions are also benefits.

Finland is one example of the Nordic Model I have experienced first-hand (especially health care). Each year most people in Finland get a pay raise. They don’t ask for it, they don’t negotiate it themselves, no need to strike! It just arrives in their wages as a result of a deal between government, unions, and employers, and it helps ensure wages keep up with inflation. No trickle-down false promises of benefits of tax cuts!

Finland has a very high level of union membership with 59 percent of the workforce being members of a union. It has been a long part of Nordic tradition that labor unions and trade associations are an important part of this social democratic system. In the system, unions, employers and often the government get together to hassle over issues of pay and working conditions. Citizens in all sectors profit, not only in their paycheck, but in social benefits. For example, in 2020 nurses will get a nice hike to attract more to the profession. The recent deal in the industrial sector took nearly half a year to settle.

The collective agreement governs work, terms, and conditions of employment for everyone in a given sector. The latest figures (2017) show that 88.8% of the workforce was covered by a collective agreement. Unions are not legally allowed to strike if they have an agreement. Non-unionist can strike. An agreement usually entails at least a general cost-of-living hike covering inflation and other criteria. Thus Finland has no need for a general minimum wage!

Government income political resolution (tupo) is designed to systematically limit inequality by pay raises agreed to by government, employers, and employees. Under the previous tupo, everyone worked an additional 24 hours for the same pay, to lower manufacturing costs and make the nation more competitive. This provision was eliminated in the recent agreement. Taxes pay for this, but are easily cheaper than out-of-pocket expenses would be (e.g., US tuitions plus expenses). Therefore there is little complaint about taxes; only when services aren’t as promised.

Republicans and other conservatives decry “creeping socialism” despite their ignorance of socialism. Under socialism, society owns industry and workers manage themselves. No politician is urging that! (Sanders’ “democratic socialism” is really social democratic.) Social democratic social economies are effectively a middle-ground between neoliberal capitalism and socialism. The U.S. already has a mixed economy with important social democratic features — Social Security, Medicare, farmers’ subsidies, etc. Democratic candidates for president argue only for expanding on these.

Vote confident that socialism won’t result; but benefits common to social democracies will never exist under a Trump administration.

Thomas Regelski is an emeritus distinguished professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

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