A Bad Year for Unions

It hasn’t been a good year for American organized labor. Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual estimate of union membership in the United States. The graphic below summarizes the major trends, drawing on the work of Barry Hirsch and David Macpherson (www.unionstats.com) and John Schmitt, Janelle Jones, and Milla Sanes at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (who offer further breakdowns by state and sector).

A few things stand out. First, we see no break in the unrelenting decline in union power and presence. The national economy has shed about 3.3 million union jobs since 1983, more than a third of those disappearing in the last recession (since 2007), and just under 400,000 between 2011 and 2012 alone. Private sector union membership, which reached over a third of all workers in the early postwar era, has shriveled to 6.6 percent. Globalization, technological change, and recession have played a part in this, but the losses are much starker in the United States than in other settings experiencing the same economic pressures. What sets the United States apart, as Kris Warner, John Schmitt, and others have pointed out, is a regime of state and federal labor law that makes it hard to form or sustain unions, and easier to get rid of them.

Second, we see wide variations across states. Union numbers are shaped by both patterns of economic growth and the density of union membership or coverage. Not surprisingly, private sector losses are starkest in rust-belt states (Pennsylvania, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana) marked by both deindustrialization and slow population growth. And scattered gains can be found in states adding population (even if the rate of union membership is flat or falling).

Third, we are beginning to see the combined effects of recent attacks on public sector unions and austerity budgets. Nationally, we lost over 230,000 public sector union members between 2011 and 2012. The losses are notably stark in those states (Wisconsin, down 48,000; Ohio, down 37,000) in which Republican governors have taken the offensive against public workers and their bargaining rights.

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.