Labor fights back from one-two punch

Labor fights back from one-two punch
Kim Bobo, labor organizer. Photo by: Jonathan Gibby

The numbers say it all. The unionized workforce has shrunk  because manufacturing jobs have been going overseas and the job growth in sectors like retail and service, where there are few unions.

Organized labor has tried to reverse the trend. The unions' methods range from welcoming immigrant workers into their ranks to having large demonstrations when state legislatures pass laws that curb the power of collective bargaining, like those passed in Wisconsin or Michigan.

But despite unions efforts, a Chicago Reporter analysis of union data from the last 40 years found that their membership, both nationally and in Illinois, has been going down.

The Big Union Decline

Outsourcing manufacturing to other countries, where workers are paid less for producing a similar product, has been a large part of the big decline. In the past 10 years, the United States has lost more than 2.1 million manufacturing jobs, according a 2012 report by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan economic research group.

Shipping Jobs to China

Because unionized workers generally earn more than their nonunionized counterparts, one of the results of a shrinking unionized workforce has been a widening wage gap between the average worker and the top 1 percent of taxpayers.

The Economic Policy Institute found that, between 1979 and 2007, annual earnings for the top 1 percent nationwide grew by 156 percent, while the paycheck of the average worker remained much the same.

Narrowing the pay gap

Organizers and activists are trying to tackle this problem by organizing workers outside of unions--through worker centers like Chicago's Arise Chicago Workers Center. Kim Bobo, a labor activist in Chicago and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, said it's increasingly clear that to help workers “we had to do more” than just work within unions.

Sometimes, worker center campaigns even lead to a newly unionized shop. Workers recently voted to unionize as a Humboldt Park embroidery company, Artistic Stitches, a move they hope will lead to higher wages and holiday pay.

Juana Cortez, a worker at Artistic Stitches, said in a statement from Arise that even without a union, there were ways to organize.

“If something unjust is happening to you at work," Cortez said, "there are organizations … that can help protect you.”

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