As another Labor Day approaches, we celebrate working Americans by looking at the ups and downs unions have faced this past year. No doubt about it, there's been more bad news than good, as lawmakers from a handful of states have tried to limit the strength of organized labor. But at a time when unemployment has remained stubbornly high, it's worth wondering whether what kind of role organized labor could and should be playing in the U.S. today. Unions have developed an increasingly unsavory reputation in the U.S. over the past century. As <em>The New York Times'</em> Joe Nocera recently pointed out in his review of Timothy Noah's <em>The Great Divergence</em>, nearly 40% of American workers in the mid-1950s were either union members or non-members covered by union contracts. Today, unions represent a mere 12% of the workforce. Here's a look at the year in unions for 2012.
Down: Unions lose (again) in Wisconsin
Wisconsin may have a long history with powerful unions, but the state has recently become a less than friendly place for workers to organize. Last year, Governor Scott Walker cut collective bargaining rights for most public workers, allowing negotiations on wages only. The measure also made it harder for unions to form. And it ended the practice of deducting union dues from pay checks. All this infuriated labor organizations and Democrats to the point that they tried to kick Walker out of office. In a recall election in January, Walker managed to hang on to his job, earning 53% of the vote over his opponent. Not only does Walker's victory signal that unions have lost some of their clout, but it could also spur other governors to push back harder on labor rights. Anti-union activists in Ohio are currently collecting signatures to get an amendment on ballots this November to make Ohio a right-to-work state in response to a repeal of a a law that stripped state and local employees of most of their collective bargaining rights.
Down: Indiana limits union negotiations
In February, Indiana lawmakers passed a law that unions say will further drive down wages and make working conditions worse for all workers. Under the right-to-work law, companies can no longer negotiate a contract with a union that requires non-members to pay fees for representation. The move was unexpected, given that Governor Mitch Daniels campaigned in 2004 promising not to add "right to work" to Indiana's labor laws. And in 2006 as governor, he reiterated the point. But Daniels changed his mind amid labor-organized protests. He argued that evidence showed companies would not locate in a state that didn't have the law. Indiana did adopt "right to work" in 1957 but repealed it in 1965. Now, it's the nation's 23rd state to enact such a law.
Up: Michigan unions fight back
Wisconsin's governor might have survived a recall election over limiting workers' rights, but not Michigan State Rep. Paul Scott. The republican was recalled last year over his support for ending collective bargaining for teachers. Now GOP lawmakers are pushing for a broader change by making Michigan a right-to-work state. Not without a fight, however. A coalition including the AFL-CIO labor federation, the United Auto Workers and the Michigan Education Association have been pushing to get a measure that would make collective bargaining a constitutionally protected right and therefore cripple efforts to pass right-to-work legislation. State election officials have opposed putting the proposal on the November ballot. On Monday, however, a Michigan court ordered Michigan's State Board of Canvassers to put the proposal on the ballot. This is indeed a win for unions, but not just yet. It remains to be seen if Michigan will join Wisconsin and the nation's other 22 right-work-states.
Up: GM autoworkers get pay bumps
Despite all the flak that union critics give collective bargaining, who says negotiations between companies and workers can't result in a win-win situation? In February, autoworkers at the General Motors Assembly Plant in Arlington, Va. received as much as $7,000 bonuses each, thanks to a labor contract agreed upon last year that stipulated that future raises would come in the form of profit-sharing. So if the company does well, workers also gain. Three years after declaring bankruptcy and reorganizing, GM reported net income of $7.6 billion for 2011. The profit-sharing bonuses are reportedly the largest such checks GM has given to its hourly employees.
A wild card: Election season
Unions are expected to play a key role in President Obama's reelection efforts, but they have offered support to the incumbent reluctantly thus far. And while the union-bashing from Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has been somewhat muted lately, workers haven't exactly cozied up to the candidate. Next week, the Democratic National Convention will take place in Charlotte, N.C., one of the least unionized states in the nation. Nonetheless, labor groups views Obama as an ally. The AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor group, has endorsed the president's reelection bid. But it wasn't that long ago when the group's president, Richard Trumka publicly criticized the Obama Administration during last summer's debt ceiling debate. Trumka, who also serves on the president's jobs council, also warned of political malaise for Obama if he failed to meaningfully address the nation's high unemployment rate. At the other end, Romney has largely been mum about unions in recent months. Of course, this is a marked shift from the Republican presidential primaries in which Romney railed against unions, arguing that they almost destroyed the U.S. auto industry.