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Does Organized Labor Have A Future?

The state of the labor movement in the United States in the year 2013 makes for grim reading. Scarcely eleven percent of the labor force belongs to a union and fewer than seven percent of private sector workers do. Only public employees enjoy a significant union presence, and like unionized private sector workers, their greatest strength is limited to a handful of states. In only eight states do union members have a substantial presence. Most states in the South, the plains, and the Rocky Mountains lack significant union presence. Moreover, in several states where unions have traditionally enjoyed success, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio, public employee unions have come under sustained attack, and have lost members. Labor seems equally embattled politically, capable of getting out the vote but unable to achieve support for its policy goals. Can the labor movement reverse its decline?


At least once every decade since the 1970s, I have recalled the prophesy that the labor economist George Barnett made in his 1932 presidential address to the American Economic Association. Barnett concluded that the labor movement as then constituted was incapable of resurrection. Yet within ten years labor became a force to be reckoned with economically, socially, and politically. I cited Barnett’s prophesy to suggest that subsequent doomsayers of the labor movement might be equally mistaken, and that organized labor might rise once again. Today, the state of the labor movement reinforces my belief that historians who usually disagree about the past can scarcely foresee the future.

I now find it hard to be optimistic about labor’s future. Today is different. When Barnett spoke in 1932, the pattern of labor movement history resembled that of the economy, marked by alternating periods of expansion and contraction. That was true not just of the labor movement in the United States between 1870 and 1970 but of labor movements globally as we discovered in a collective research project on world labor conducted within the Fernand Braudel Center and subsequently published in a special issue of the Center’s journal, Review.[1] Since the 1970s, however, while the economy has continued to fluctuate between periods of expansion and contraction, the labor movement in the Western world has contracted steadily, nowhere as rapidly as in Great Britain and the United States. Organized labor in the United States reached its peak density in the early 1950s when nearly one-third of the non-agricultural civilian labor force belonged to unions and such key sectors of the economy as automobiles, steel, electrical goods, food processing, mining, and transportation were substantially unionized. In those and related economic sectors, even non-union enterprises provided employees wages and benefits that matched and sometimes exceeded the gains union contracts obtained for members.

Thereafter, however, unions, especially in the private sector, suffered persistent declines in membership.

Absolute union membership advanced in the 1960s when public employees won the right to unionize and to bargain collectively. Yet the labor force grew more rapidly than did the number of union members leading to a decline in union density.

 The decline was most notable in the private sector where technological innovation, beginning in the 1950s under the rubric automation, increased productivity and displaced labor; fewer automobile and steel workers produced far more output than their predecessors. Simultaneously the industrial powers ravaged by war, notably Germany and Japan, rebuilt their economies and invested in the most modern technology while their U.S. competitors had yet to amortize fully their existing capital investments. Not only did U.S. manufacturers lose market share overseas but foreign competitors competed successfully with them for market share domestically.

Private sector employers in the U.S have always resisted unions and fought any impingement of their “right to manage.” Unable in the 1950s to oust unions from the towering heights of the economy, corporations sought to contain union power. They practiced containment more successfully than the U.S. did in its cold war with the Soviet Union. First, with the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, labor’s adversaries tolerated union power where it already existed but restrained its further growth. Corporations then engaged in a well-funded public relations campaign that associated unions with corruption, labor racketeering, and communism, and that appealed to powerful strains of individualism in American culture.[2] Corporations continuously introduced new technologies that raised productivity and diminished the demand for labor. As population redistributed away from centers of union power in what became the “rust belt,” toward states in the “sun belt” where unions were most notable by their absence and the dominant culture and political structures were anti-union, labor power suffered. Unions enjoyed less stability in “right to work” states, where negotiated contracts could not legally mandate union membership as a condition of employment or require that non-union employees share the costs associated with the legal requirement that unions must represent and bargain for all employees in an enterprise governed by a collective bargaining agreement. Moreover, between the mid-1950s and the end of the century, the federal judiciary steadily stripped union members of the right to strike and reinterpreted the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act to deny unions rights previously held while allocating new rights to employers. Indeed the corporate containment of labor proved exceedingly successful. Union power collapsed far earlier than the Soviet bloc fell apart.

By the time the Republicans came to power in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan and a congressional majority the American labor movement had already been debilitated. Between 1977 and 1980 with a Democratic president and a party majority in both houses of congress, labor suffered more defeats than victories. Then secretary of labor, Ray Marshall, may have been a friend to unions but the men (not a woman among them) who shaped economic policy in the Carter administration believed that labor’s “monopoly power” should be curtailed. The deregulation of the trucking and airline industries weakened what had theretofore been a dominant union influence in both sectors. Policies that encouraged liberal global trade practices decimated labor intensive domestic industries as American garment manufacturers, textile producers, and shoe companies either moved their enterprises abroad to benefit from low-wage labor or shuttered their domestic operations.[3] Even capital intensive domestic industries that remained unionized found themselves in competition with foreign enterprises that opened plants in the U.S. most often in right-to-work states and on a non-union basis.

The Reagan presidency merely accelerated trends years in the making. At first his administration sought an accommodation with the AFL-CIO, while following the customary Republican practice of appointing friends of business to the NLRB and the federal courts. The decision by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers’ Association to call its members out on strike in 1981 enabled Reagan to act as a decisive leader in tune with public opinion as well as many union members when he ordered the controllers back to work and threatened them with permanent job loss if they refused his order. Even then Reagan offered labor his hand in a speech to the convention of the Carpenter’s union, part of which a White House staff member vetted with me. In the aftermath of the strike and the crushing of the union, private sector employers pursued a strategy of inducing strikes by their employees and responded by hiring replacement workers to break the unions. As the 1980s ended, unions had effectively surrendered the right to strike and massive industry-wide walkouts that had marked industrial relations from 1934 to the early 1970s practically disappeared. To maintain their vanishing power in the private sector, unions negotiated concessionary contracts that tolerated a separate lower wage scale for new hires, often reduced wages for longterm workers in competition with labor overseas or employees in non-union foreign transplants in the U.S. Nothing that unions tried in the globally competitive private economic sectors countervailed their decline.

Only among public sector employees whose unionized ranks continued to grow and in personal service sectors, especially health care, janitorial services, and hospitality trades in which foreign competitors lacked purchase, did organized labor seem to have a future.

Even there the “Walmart model” threatened union growth and security. Walmart, by the year 2000 the world’s largest private employer, practiced a successful union avoidance strategy. It employed many part-time workers who earned a wage barely above the legal minimum and who often lacked such essential benefits as health care. Walmart’s exploitative labor practices undermined the United Food and Commercial Workers’ union’s strength in the retail trade sector. Elsewhere in the personal services sector, labor turnover was so common and rapid that unions found it nearly impossible to maintain membership levels or too costly to invest in organizing new hires.

As a new century opened only workers in the public sector and the health professions appeared relatively secure in their union membership. Yet hostility to public sector unionism had been building since the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s. The state and local tax rebellions that arose in the 1970s and that succeeded in California and Massachusetts were in large part a reaction to the salaries, benefits, and job security enjoyed by public employees. As private sector unionism declined and as union members saw their wages, benefits, and job security diminished, non-union and union workers alike increasingly resented the property and sales taxes that financed the salaries and benefits enjoyed by public employees. So, today, in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan, where private sector unionism has declined and union members have suffered from concessionary bargaining, much of the voting public resents unionized public employees. Hence it should be no surprise that in all three states the rights of public employees have been curtailed by legislative and executive actions. It is also well to remember that in much of the nation public employees lack the right to unionize or to bargain collectively.

More than three-quarters of a century has passed since the American labor movement experienced an insurgency that transformed its structure, unionized millions of new members, and organized the towering heights of the economy. Even then, as the labor historian David Brody has noted repeatedly, the CIO pursued a style of “job conscious” unionism long associated with the AFL and its practice of “pure and simple unionism.”[4] When AFL and CIO merged in 1955, their marriage represented the maturation of an American labor movement. Ever since organized labor has suffered from senescence, a decline in its health and vitality that has caused a breach between elderly union leaders and younger members. For too long aging “white guys” showed disdain for the growing ranks of women and nonwhite workers, and practiced a politics that failed to recognize how or why the Democratic party no longer felt bound to serve the interests of AFL-CIO.

When in the 1990s the labor movement finally reawakened and insurgents captured control of the AFL-CIO, they chose as their new president another aging white man. Moreover, the rebels could not have chosen a less propitious moment to achieve power. However much they promised to revitalize the labor movement, to organize more aggressively, to embrace openly Latinos and Latinas (citizens and legal residents as well as the undocumented), to support liberal immigration policies, to welcome women and African Americans into leadership positions, and to embrace gay and trans-gender members, the forces arrayed against labor proved too powerful. So ineffective did the new leadership of AFL-CIO prove itself to be in unionizing the unorganized that within less than a decade a new insurgency arose, one that split the labor movement as CIO had done in 1935. This time, however, the insurgents who created Change to Win failed to repeat the success of CIO. Not only did Change to Win fail to revitalize the labor movement; both it and AFL-CIO continued to suffer membership losses in the private sector, until in the year 2013 fewer than 6.6 percent of employees belonged to unions.

Given the current alignment of forces domestically and globally, I find it hard to conceive of any tactics or broader strategy through which the labor movement might reestablish its former size, place, and power. Indeed, I cannot imagine a policy that might reverse the decline in private sector union membership nor one that would defend public sector union members successfully against their political enemies. A regrowth of the labor movement will not emerge from leaders or forces within the movement as currently constituted. Only a shock of the magnitude of the Great Depression of the 1930s or World Wars I and II is likely to stimulate a rebirth of the labor movement. Such a shock, however, might this time be as likely to produce greater repression of labor as to bring a New Deal for workers. Today it is far easier to maintain “pessimism of the intelligence” than “optimism of the will.”


[1] Melvyn Dubofsky, G. Arrighi,& B. Silver, eds., “Labor Unrest in the World Economy, 1870-1990,” Review  (Special Issue), XVIII (Winter 1995).

[2] David Witwer, Shadow of the Racketeer: Scandal in Organized Labor (Working Class in American History,University of Illinois Press, 2009.

[3] Melvyn Dubofsky, “Jimmy Carter and the End of the Politics of Productivity,” in Gary M. Fink and Hugh Davis Graham, eds., The Carter Presidency: Policy Choices in the Post-New Deal Era, University Press of Kansas, 1998, 95-116.

[4] David Brody, Workers in Industrial America: Essays on the Twentieth-Century Struggle, Oxford University Press, 1993.

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