Unions Are Still a Vital Force in the American Economy

Today, pundits of all political stripes are bound to repeat a familiar refrain about the decline of American labor unions. Young workers, they say, no longer see the value in membership. And the public views them as a relic of America's industrial past.

But it's this perception that is dated. It's been created by a wealthy, well-orchestrated alliance of big business, conservative political activists, and a fleet of management "consultants" set on ridding our nation of unions, collective bargaining, and basic protections for workers.

In fact, the Gallop Organization reported the results of its annual Work and Education survey, conducted Aug. 5-9, which showed that Americans' approval of labor unions has jumped five percentage points to 58 percent over the past year, and is now at its highest point since 2008.

A quick look at the facts shows that unions are delivering more value for American business -- and the American economy -- than ever before.

The highest rates of unionization are found in some of the most vital professions. Education and training services, for instance, boast a unionization rate of over 35 percent.

Excluding residential construction, roughly 40 percent of the construction industry is unionized, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The association of unions I'm proud to lead, North America's Building Trades Unions, has added 150,000 members over the last two years. We now represent over 3,000,000 skilled craft professionals across the United States and Canada.

Union membership continues to generate real benefits. Weekly median earnings for a unionized construction craft professional are roughly two-thirds higher than those for a non-union one -- $1,123 vs. $724.

Unfortunately, the prevailing public narrative pits unions and business at odds with one another. Labor negotiations and collective bargaining are increasingly viewed as a zero-sum game in which one side has to lose.

That's not necessarily true. And the Building Trades are a case in point.

More than ever, our unions are working hand in hand with individual companies, whole industries and local communities in order to provide a wide range of value that increases corporate competitiveness and addresses socio-economic concerns that have plagued communities for generations.

For instance, our unions are jointly managing and operating "apprenticeship-readiness" programs in concert with construction owners, contractors, community groups and local public agencies in over 75 major metropolitan regions in the U.S. These programs provide basic construction education that prepares participants for full-time, formal apprenticeship training. And they're specifically designed to help historically disadvantaged populations -- chiefly native peoples, communities of color, urban youth, women, and military veterans.

The Building Trades Unions and our industry partners have teamed up to operate over 1,600 joint apprenticeship training centers (JATCs) across the U.S. These centers are funded by over $1 billion in annual private sector investments. If this network were an individual college or university, it would be the second-biggest in the nation.

These apprenticeships have obvious benefits for businesses. They supply a steady stream of skilled workers at precisely the moment when employers are most desperate for them.

Indeed, a recent survey from the Wall Street Journal found that about one-third of all small businesses are now suffering job vacancies because they can't find a qualified applicant.

This is the skills gap. And it's getting worse. Researchers at Georgetown University predict that the United States will be short 5 million skilled workers by the end of the decade.

These apprenticeship programs will help plug that hole.

Workers also benefit immensely from this training. They acquire the talents that can power a career. Skilled craft jobs can provide a lift out of poverty, off public assistance, and into the middle class.

In fact, the typical apprenticeship graduate secures a starting salary of $50,000. That alone is enough to support a family in most parts of the country. And that income tends to rise rapidly as workers accrue more experience.

To be sure, the value of labor unions is on display at construction sites, in workforce training centers, and in American households every day. That's something worth celebrating this Labor Day.

Sean McGarvey is president of North America's Building Trades Unions.