Fifty years ago, one-third of American workers belonged to a union. Today, it's 1 in 10. And that number is likely to slip further if, as expected, the Supreme Court weakens public-sector unions, which today account for nearly half of all union members.
Yet despite decades of setbacks, the labor movement still shows signs of life—and not just in its typical blue-collar stomping grounds. Workers across the economy are realizing that unions can help them win better working conditions and higher wages. Here are five industries where unions have made surprising gains:
Last month, more than 220 writers, editors, and other staffers at the Huffington Post voted to join the Writers Guild of America, East. The guild's victory followed other successful drives in recent months at Gawker, Salon, ThinkProgress, and Vice Media. Another union, NewsGuild-CWA, last year helped organize the Guardian US and digital staffers at Al Jazeera America.
Although unions have represented many newspaper reporters for decades, they've only recently begun to penetrate web-only publications. These fast-growing startups typically woo young writers with the promise of huge audiences and considerable editorial freedom—while offering little in the way of salaries, benefits, or family-friendly scheduling.
But as digital reporters have matured, so have their expectations. "The idea that someone will continue to work all his waking hours is not sustainable," Bernard Lunzer, president of the NewsGuild, told the journalism site Poynter.org. "If owners are doing well, workers will say, 'Let's get a bit more reasonable.'"
Most of America's 1 million security guards don't have much security on the job. With scant health benefits and pay that averages just $11 an hour, they are often just one mishap away from disaster.
So some of them are looking to unions for protection. Since 2003, more than 50,000 security guards have won contracts through the Service Employees International Union—often with big improvements in wages, health care, paid time off, and other benefits. In 2015 alone, more than 2,100 security officers in Baltimore, Sacramento, Indianapolis, and Pittsburgh formed unions.
The SEIU has focused primarily on the 60 percent of security guards employed by independent contractors, which tend to pay bottom-of-the-barrel wages. In May, responding to pressure from labor groups, Facebook announced a $15 minimum wage and a new-parent benefit for all its subcontracted workers. Google and Apple recently went even further by bringing their security guards in-house and offering them the same benefits as their other workers.
In 2014, private buses for tech workers in the San Francisco Bay Area became potent symbols of inequality and gentrification. Last year, however, they became known for something more positive: union contracts.
It all started last February, when newly unionized drivers employed by Facebook contractor Loop Transportation won a sweetheart contract through Local 853 of the Teamsters. It guaranteed a $9 raise to $27.50 an hour, fully paid family health insurance—a first—up to five weeks of paid vacation, 11 paid holidays, and a pension. "It was just an amazing first contract," says Doug Bloch, the Teamsters' Northern California political director. "They were literally catapulted into the middle class overnight."
The deal sent ripple effects through the Bay Area labor market. The following month, Apple and Google announced a 25 percent raise for all contract shuttle bus drivers. In May, unionized shuttle drivers at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency won a 44 percent wage increase, 25 days off (up from 12), and a 401(k) plan with an employee match.
Other drivers scrambled to join the union, too. In November, Local 853 won a similarly sweet deal for nearly 200 newly organized employees of Compass Transportation, which serves Apple, eBay, PayPal, and Yahoo, among others. Next up on the union's radar is Bauer's Intelligent Transportation, a contractor for Twitter, Yelp, Cisco, and Salesforce.
"In the Bay Area there's a lot of discussion about the intersection between the high-tech economy and income inequality," says Bloch of the Teamsters. Tech companies "are politically vulnerable for the exact same reason, and that created an opening for us."
In the 1970s, two-thirds of college and university faculty was tenured and a third was not. Now those percentages are flipped: Nearly half of professors don't even have full-time jobs. As with other involuntary part-time workers in restaurants or retail, these "adjuncts" often have a hard time making ends meet.
Enter the SEIU's Faculty Forward campaign. Since launching three years ago, it has won union contracts for more than 10,000 adjunct and nontenured faculty at more than 30 colleges and universities, including Georgetown, Tufts, Boston University, and the University of Chicago. Some profs have seen raises of 30 percent.
In a related campaign, the United Auto Workers is unionizing graduate student workers such as teaching assistants and resident advisers. There are already grad student unions at some 60 public university campuses, but a 2004 National Labor Relations Board ruling has prevented similar unions from forming at private colleges—until now. In 2013, worried that Obama appointees on the NLRB would reverse the Bush-era ruling, New York University agreed to let its grad students form a union. The UAW now has campaigns at Harvard, Columbia, and the New School in New York City—the union also is in talks with students at many other private campuses. The NLRB is expected to revisit its 2004 ruling sometime this year.
"When it first started we didn't pay much notice," admits Jim Gannon, a spokesman for the New York local of the Transport Workers Union. "It was just a bunch of bikes."
But then the union heard from some of the company's 150 workers—mechanics and "balancers" who make sure that the racks don't go empty. They joined the TWU in late 2014 and last year won a contract that guarantees parental leave, paid vacation, and 20 percent raises within five years.
The company's workers in Jersey City, the District of Columbia, Boston, and Chicago soon followed, becoming union members over the next several months. "We kind of take the position that if it's public and it moves on wheels," Gannon now says, "it should be TWU and it should be unionized."
By some estimates, the just-nabbed billionaire drug kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera, a.k.a. El Chapo, supplies more than half the cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana that comes into the United States. But not all of those drugs were created equal in his eyes. While pot undoubtedly helped El Chapo get his start, it's no longer the key to his dominion.
Mexico now supplies only about one-third of America's pot, down from two-thirds as recently as 2008.
Guzmán, who was arrested by the Mexican police on Friday, grew up in the 1960s in Sinaloa, the remote, rugged, West Coast state still known as Mexico's marijuana heartland. As a boy, he earned money working in marijuana fields before a friend's father—one of the first Sinaloan farmers to traffic pot in bulk—brought him into what later became the Sinaloa Cartel. And although pot was the cartel's bread and butter for years, El Chapo's syndicate long ago branched into other drugs.
It was a prescient move. Since 2011, competition from high-quality pot grown legally and quasi-legally north of the border has cut the wholesale price for Sinaloan marijuana by 70 percent. Mexico now supplies only about one-third of America's pot, down from two-thirds as recently as 2008. "It's a big difference," a Sinaloan farmer told NPR. "If the US continues to legalize pot, they will run us into the ground."
Like any good businessman, El Chapo understood the importance of a diverse portfolio. In the late 1970s, Mexican traffickers began moving cocaine for producers in Colombia and Central America, first by air and boat to Central America and Mexico, and then by land into the United States. Sinaloa now controls an estimated 35 percent of Colombian cocaine shipments.
Unique among Mexican cartels, Sinaloa is both horizontally and vertically integrated. It produces its own marijuana and heroin, and starting in the 1990s it expanded into methamphetamine. After regulations made it more difficult to manufacture large quantities of meth in the United States, Sinaloa ordered precursor chemicals by the boatload from India and China to supply its own Mexican superlabs.
Even the heroin that isn't grown by the Sinaloa Cartel is likely being smuggled by it. The orange areas in this map show the cartel's sphere of influence in the United States:
The cartel's evolution shows how the legalization of pot has taken business away from criminal syndicates. But it also suggests that the cartels will continue to thrive amid the prohibition of other popular drugs. "It's a reality that drugs destroy," Guzmán told actor Sean Penn shortly before his capture. "Unfortunately, as I said, where I grew up, there was no other way and there still isn't a way to survive, no way to work in our economy to be able to make a living."
It's well known that America's wealthiest have been getting richer at the expense of the middle class. But the trend looks even starker when you look at the racial aspects. According to a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies, the combined wealth of those on the Forbes 400 list of America's richest dwarfs that of the nation's entire black or Latino populations.
The report found that the 100 richest US citizens control about as much wealth as all of the nation's 42 million African Americans. The total wealth of the nation's 55 million Latinos stacks up to that of the 186 richest Americans.
The average white family today has net assets of $141,900, compared with just $11,000 for black families.
This can be explained in part by the rapid erosion of the black and Latino middle classes. African Americans' net worth relative to whites has fallen by more than half since 2000: The average white family today has net assets of $141,900, compared with just $11,000 for black families—about the same paltry sum as back in 1985. Latinos have seen similar declines in net worth relative to whites.
There are many reasons for this slide: Black and Latino families were disproportionately exposed to risky subprime mortgages, had smaller amounts of inherited wealth, and were more susceptible to job and wage cuts during the Great Recession. And because these families are less likely than white families to own homes and stocks, they haven't benefited as much from the subsequent recovery.
America's stark inequality problem is evident in the Forbes 400 itself. Blacks and Latinos make up a combined 29 percent of the population but account for less than 2 percent of the Forbes list. Oprah Winfrey and the tech investor Robert Smith are the sole African Americans on the list, and just five on the list have Latino backgrounds. (They are Miami condo king Jorge Perez, billboard billionaire Arturo Moreno, and three heirs of the late Colombian beer magnate Julio Mario Santo Domingo, a major owner of the SABMiller empire.)
The dearth of black and Latino billionaires in the United States defies easy explanations, but one big factor may be Silicon Valley. The tech industry has minted more billionaires in recent years than any other sector of the economy. It also has a deeply entrenched diversity problem. According to census data, the proportion of Hispanic tech workers in Silicon Valley actually declined from 5 percent in 2000 to 4 percent in 2010—and the proportion of black techies fell from 3 percent to 2 percent. The Valley has begun to take diversity a little more seriously, but it could be another generation or more before it produces a black Mark Zuckerberg or a Latino Sergey Brin.
Over the past five years, Black Friday has migrated steadily into Thanksgiving, with each new year bringing fresh examples of big box stores flinging their doors open on Turkey Day. But this year the trend hit the skids. Though Walmart and the other usual suspects will still open on Thanksgiving Day, many big retailers—Costco, Nordstrom, Marshalls, and Home Depot, for example—are holding the line. Outdoor superstore REI went even further, announcing that it will be closed not only on Thanksgiving, but all the way through Black Friday.
Are consumers finally starting to get fed up with the holiday shopping hype? And what motivates some stores to close on Thanksgiving even as others rake in the cash? To find out, I called up Curt Munk, a veteran advisor for big-box retailers and Chief Strategist for the renowned brand agency FCB Red.
The people who organized the largest-ever Black Friday demonstrations against Walmart last year are leaving their protest signs at home this year. Instead, they're launching a campaign to support 1,000 food drives around the country to help struggling Walmart workers.
Making Change at Walmart's "Give Back Friday" campaign kicked off on Tuesday with the launch of a national TV ad campaign urging people "to help feed underpaid workers" and to "help us tell Walmart that in America no hard-working family should go hungry."
Some Walmart stores have implicitly acknowledged that their "associates" don't make enough money to feed themselves. In 2013, a Walmart store in Ohio held a Thanksgiving food drive "for associates in need"—although well intentioned, the drive became a publicity nightmare for the retail giant after photos of the food collection bin went viral.
Walmart raised its wages this year, but an entry-level associate still makes just $9 an hour—less than $16,000 a year based on Walmart's full-time status of 34 hours a week. (The federal poverty level is $24,250 for a family of four and $11,770 for an individual.) A 2013 report by congressional Democrats found that the company's wages and benefits are sufficiently low that many employees turn to the government for help, costing taxpayers between $900,000 and $1.75 million per store.
"This holiday season, we have set the goal of feeding 100,000 Walmart workers and families," the union-backed group Making Change at Walmart said in a press release. "It is unconscionable that people working for one of the richest companies in this country should have to starve."