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Why are there so many strikes?

Though it may seem like unions are infiltrating every workplace, only 10.1% of workers belong to unions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) most recent estimates — which is half of the 1983 rate. The BLS even saw a 0.2% decrease in union membership in 2022 compared to 2021.

Even though union membership isn’t sky high, it’s been the “summer of strikes” for several reasons, including corporations seeing record profits while wages remain stagnant and the cost of living continues to rise. And now, there’s the looming threat of AI replacing workers — something that even Ray Dalio is warning his colleagues about.

With these economic shifts, Gallup reported 71% of Americans approve of labor unions — the highest percentage recorded since 1965. Even investing legend Warren Buffett counts himself among their supporters. On the other hand, many Americans are still skeptical or even opposed to unions, including Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. So who's right? Do unions help or harm the economy?

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The pros

Unions aim to create positive benefits for all workers — not just their individual members. And research shows their efforts have had a massive impact on the face of work in the U.S. From 1930 to 1960, union participation increased and contributed to reducing the income gap across America, according to a 2021 article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

A smaller income gap also means that workers have more money to spend — and funnel back into the economy and their own savings. An overwhelming 93% of union workers have access to retirement plans, compared to just 67% of non-union members in 2022, according to BLS data. With many older Americans in the grips of a homelessness epidemic, the government will need to spend more on the welfare of older adults. But advocates argue that if every retiree had these kinds of union retirement savings, more tax dollars could go toward things that benefit everyone directly, like parks, schools and roads.

A newer union benefit is the protections some are creating against technology that could take over jobs. Without proper protections against AI, you and many others could be out of work, which could have a serious impact on the unemployment rate and the strength of the American economy.

The cons

Though workers greatly benefit from unions, corporations don’t always receive the same perks. For instance, if a corporation has to increase wages, like they did with UPS workers in August, there’s less money for the company to either reinvest in the business or hand out to shareholders. It’s basic math.

Plus, unions cost money — not just for the corporation, but for workers too. Every month or year, individual workers must pay their dues. And at many unionized workplaces, even if you don’t want to be a member, you can’t work there without being in the union, according to the National Right to Work Foundation.

Unfortunately, some unions have a history with corruption and criminal activity. (Just look at Jimmy Hoffa, a leader in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters with infamous ties to organized crime.) If you end up with poor union leadership who abuse your dues, you’re not likely to see the protections you paid for.

Whether you cross the picket line or not, there’s no getting around the fact that workers are frustrated with corporate America. While the Biden administration and several economists tout the benefits of unions in empowering workers, there are often personal trade-offs involved in acting on behalf of the collective. Deciding which is the lesser of two evils is up to you.

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Sabina Wex is a writer and podcast producer in Toronto. Her work has appeared in Business Insider, Fast Company, CBC and more.

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