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Labor Today

Who belongs to unions? It’s obvious, isn’t it--primarily, low-income, unskilled workers who, in the absence of unionization, would be collecting food stamps. Actually, that’s not an accurate picture, as a new report from Center for Economic and Policy Research shows. The report, written by John Schmitt and Kris Warner, shows that in the last twenty-five years, the proportion of unionized workers with college-degrees has gone from 20.4 to 37.5 percent. If you add workers who have attended but not graduated from college, you have 66.4 percent of the unionized workforce. Or to look at it in the opposite way, in 1983, 49.4 percent of unionized workers had not attended college; in 2008, only 33.6 percent. The numbers are even higher women workers, who have gone from 35 to 45 percent of the unionized workforce. Among women workers in unions, 49.4 percent have college degrees. Fifty years ago, the typical union member was a male auto or construction worker who never went to college. Today, it is increasingly a teacher or nurse with a college degree.

So what, you ask? I don’t have the figures in front of me. If this were not a blog, I’d be off to the library, and I appreciate any corrections from readers. But I think that if you had a breakdown of the unionized workforce in 1908 or 1924, you’d find a very similar pattern--namely, that the workers who belonged unions tended to be the higher-skilled and higher-income segment of the working class, what socialists used to call “the aristocracy of labor.” It wasn’t teachers, but it was mechanics and other workers in specialized crafts who had to go through apprenticeships. The American labor movement resembled the early guild system--and it still does. It’s good, of course, that the upper end of the workforce is unionized. They provide a formidable political force and have been a principal reason why America is not an entirely conservative country. But the other side to the story is that the relative absence of unionization in the middle and lower ranges of the working class has left large swaths of the electorate disorganized, atomized, relatively poorly paid, and subject to manipulation by corporate lobbies and their allies in the Republican party. That’s a vulgar way of putting it, but for the moment it will have to do.