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"Unions have outlived their usefulness. There needs to be another way to get working people what they need." Talk back on the boards.

Income and Inequality
10.22.04
Politics and Economy:
Income and Inequality
More on This Story:
Working Class Majority?

In his book, WORKING CLASS MAJORITY, AMERICA'S BEST KEPT SECRET, Michael Zweig puts forward a new definition of what makes a person a member of the working class. It's not just a matter of income, maintains Zweig, but a matter of power. Says Zweig:
The working class for me are people who are working and without a great deal of authority over the pace and the content of the work. The people who are working as cashiers, as truck drivers, white collar, blue collar. For me, class is a question of power more than it is a question of income and life style. Though of course, income and life style figure into the discussion. But I think at the heart of the matter is power.
In Zweig's formulation the middle class is much smaller than Americans traditionally believe — even doctors and professors might be losing control of their work day to HMOs and university administrations. And jobs may not always be in the same class. Zweig cites the example of the truck driver who owns his own rig as a member of the middle class; a truck driver who works for a shipping company is working class. Using the Department of Labor's own job categories, Zweig has analyzed the American workforce. He finds that due to the little control most workers exert over the power structures they encounter, over 60 percent of Americans are working class — a majority. (Do you place yourself in the working class? Tell us on the message boards. Learn more about Zweig and the Center for the Study of Working Class Life.)

Working Class by Industry
Number in Millions/Percentage of Group Considered Working Class

Executive, administrative and managerial:  17.7 / -
Professional speciality:  18.8 / 8%
Technical and related support:  -3.9 / 74%
Sales:  15.5 / 44%
Administrative support:  18.3 / 96%
Services:  17.2 / 92%
Precision production, craft and repair:  13.6 / 93%
Operators, fabricators, and laborers:  18.2 / 100%
Farming, forestry, and fishing:  3.6 / 55%
Unemployed:  7.2 / 75%
Total:  133.9 / 62%

SOURCE: THE WORKING MAJORITY: AMERICA'S BEST KEPT SECRET and Department of Labor statistics, 1996

State of the Unions

Unions used to be a way of life in the United States and for many, a marker of membership in the working class. The battles waged by early trade and industrial unions were essential in creating many of the "givens" of the modern workplace — the minimum wage, the 40-hour week, safety rules, workman's compensation insurance and other benefits. (See NOW's Glossary of Labor Terms.) According to the Economic Policy Institute, unionized workers on average earn 11.5 percent more than non-unionized workers, and realize even greater advantages in benefit packages.

There's little doubt that union membership is falling. The number of persons belonging to a union fell by 369,000 over the course of 2003 to 15.8 million. In 2002 the number of persons belonging to a union fell by 280,000. The union membership rate has steadily declined from a high of 20.1 percent of the wage and salary workforce in 1983 to 12.9 percent in 2003. As the figures below illustrate, whether or not there is a union in your life depends very much on where you live and what you do for work. Today less than one in 10 workers in private-sector industries is a member of a union. Many of today's low-wage industries, like childcare and eldercare, sales workers, and hospitality workers are notoriously hard to organize.

State of the Unions

Percentage of wage and salary workers who are union members, 2003:  12.9%
Percentage of wage and salary workers who were union members, 1983:  20.1%
Unionization rates for government workers, 2003:  37.2%
Unionization rate of private sector employees, 2003:  8.2%
Unionization rate among protective services workers (police, fire fighters):  46.2%
Unionization rate among transportation and utilities workers:  26.2%
Unionization rate among construction workers:  16.0%
Unionization rate among professional workers (including teachers):  19.1%
Unionization rate among manufacturing workers:  13.6%
Unionization rate among sales and office workers:  8.2%
Unionization rate among agriculture and related industries:  1.6%

The main work issue for many Americans is job security. In September 2004, the jobless rate was 5.4%. It might not seem like much when compared to some European nations, but it is something Americans haven't been familiar with of late.

Observers have noted that these job losses are not just affecting one sector, unlike the large losses in manufacturing during the 1970s. Instead, all sectors of the economy — blue- and white-collar workers — are feeling the pain. Now every state has a Web site dedicated to aiding its workers. You can find information on unemployment compensation, job listings, and advice for your locale on our Employment Resource Map.

Sources: THE NEW YORK TIMES; National Labor Relations Board; Bureau of Labor Statistics; OECD Statistics; Japanese Labor Statistics

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