Unions in America

By Mike Koetting     September 3, 2018 

What with today being Labor Day, it seemed an appropriate time to reflect on unions in America.

It is difficult to over-estimate the positive impact that unions have had on American life. Unions are in some way responsible for humane wages, 40 hour working week, vacations, pensions, and safer working conditions. For all workers, not just union members. It is also the case that when unions were strongest, immediately after WWII, inequality was lowest. Certainly many factors contributed to the rise of a more egalitarian society.  But, as shown in recent research on unions, summarized by Mike Konzcal in The Nation, the rise of unions explains the increase in overall societal equality “every bit as much as theories about education or any other single factor.”

Despite this, unions have lost favor in America.

What happened?

Business, and by extension, the Republican Party, had vociferously opposed unions since their inception. But in the years immediately after WWII, America was hit with a large wave of strikes. Many people saw these as labor overplaying its hand—at a time when the population was anxious to get back to “normalcy”. As described by Rich Yeselson, this led to solidification of the forces against unions—the business community, the Republican Party and the South, which feared unions would ally with a nascent civil rights movement. These forces culminated in the passage, over President Truman’s veto, of the Taft-Hartley Act.

Taft-Harley was, in its direct consequences, not particularly draconian. But it unleased a wave of indirect consequences, including freeing states to pass “Right to Work” laws and, in general, making unions much more defensive and cautious about their role. It was supplemented by a massive corporate PR attack linking unions with corruption, labor racketeering, and communism. While unions continued to exert significant influence for years, this was the beginning of the long decline in union membership, pushed along by an aggressive regulatory, judicial and legislative campaign from Republicans and corporations.  From a high of over 30% of the workforce in the early Fifties, union membership is now about 10.7%, with a bare 6.7% of the private sector unionized.

Opposition by Republicans and corporations was not the only reason for the declining importance of unions. The nature of business in America changed. Largely due to automation, manufacturing is a smaller portion of the workforce and what remains is geographically more distributed, making it increasingly difficult to organize.

Beyond that, unions have lost the public relations battle. Unions are widely perceived as being more concerned with protecting their members than is consistent with needs for larger social changes. Some of this is simple jealousy. Many people, whose main complaint with unions is that union workers have been able to hold onto benefits that other workers have lost, seem to think that is a compelling reason why unions should give up those benefits. Obviously balderdash. All workers should have these benefits, including higher wages. The reason unions reduced inequality is because they made these benefits widespread. When unions were diminished, corporations felt more confident in taking them away. But this hardly makes it right.

There are other issues. Americans have always had a strong streak of individualism, often misguided, and corporate PR has played up the idea that unions were “anti-individualist” Unions also lost traction within the Democratic Party. Even with progressive union leadership, rank-and-file in some unions have been anti-progressive. Defection of union votes in the late-Sixties and into the Seventies helped nudge the Democratic party away from a focus on union issues. Perceived lack of support for minority and women’s issues exacerbated the drift. (Interestingly, as Konzcal points out, the empirical evidence is compelling that on balance unions were a powerful force for racial economic justice. Individual unions, and individual union members, however have been egregiously unhelpful in this regard.)

I would also summon my own experiences. For most of my career I’ve been a management guy in largely unionized organizations. I never begrudged the fact that unions won higher wages than would have been the case were the workers not unionized. But working with the unions was endlessly frustrating:

  • The need to battle over the smallest changes in work procedures
  • The insistence on seniority to determine job eligibility
  • Bumping rights
  • The protections afforded for employees, no matter how awful they were

While I do appreciate that these evolved as defenses against very real abuses by management, they are nevertheless often at odds with the demands of today’s rapidly changing business environments and technologies.

The Consequences

Whatever unions’ problems, their weakening has affected the entire society. While there is no single cause for the rising inequality in America , the loss of union power is certainly an important one. Numerous economists have presented strong evidence that the weakening of unions has contributed significantly to rising inequality of the past forty years. Nathan Pippenger summarizes:

Economists have estimated that declining union membership over the last four plus decades could account for as much as 15-20 percent, or perhaps even a third, of the growth in inequality among male workers. And it might have caused as much as 20 percent of the growth in inequality for all workers.

Unions vs Top 10%

Source: Economic Policy Institute

What Next?

On the one hand, it is hard to see how there would be a return to the traditional unionism. Too much has changed. On the other hand, there is abundant evidence that the pressure for some change is building. Union advocates Bruce Raynor and Andy Stern contend:

Young people are experiencing the worst career prospects since the Depression. This is now true among both the educated and poorly educated. It is causing many members of this generation to question America’s political and economic systems and established institutions.

The overwhelming defeat of a proposed “Right to Work” initiative in Missouri—a state that Trump won 57% to 38%–suggests they may be right.

But as Raynor and Stern also acknowledge, today’s unions will need twenty-first century answers.  There are several directions that must be pursued, which I will summarize in three major groups.

First, make institutional changes in the way America thinks about corporations.  Senator Warren has introduced the Accountable Capitalism Act that would mandate changes in corporate organization designed to make them more oriented to longer term commitment to workers, the community and the economy.  She has noted, for instance, that in 1981 the Business Roundtable, a major business lobbying group, suggested a corporation’s goals should be to “enhance the enterprise, provide jobs, and build the economy.” But by 1997, they saw the “principal objective of a business enterprise is to generate economic returns to its owners.” Among the provisions in this act is the potential for requiring worker participation on the corporate board.  Senator Tammy Baldwin has also introduced legislation requiring worker representation on boards.

Second, unions must be more flexible in their approach to organizing. Given the changing nature of work, they need approaches. A recent article in The American Prospect offers several examples of possibilities for sector organizing rather than working on individual firms. For instance, the New York City establishment of a Wage Board for food service workers, allowed organizing across the sector rather than store by store. The core of these tactics is to align the union goals with goals of the broader community, which they call “Bargaining for the Common Good”.

Finally, actually win legislative battles to reverse the long-term erosion of workers’ rights. The Economic Policy Institute has recently put together a 15-point agenda that would restore a better balance between workers and corporations. Many of these points are familiar suggestions to rejuvenate workers collective bargaining rights that have been undermined by years of adverse regulatory and judicial decisions. Democrats have historically given lip service to these goals, but even when they have had majorities, have been unable or unwilling to actually pass relevant laws.

We all need to root for unions.  For whatever problems they pose, a revitalized union movement is as much for the benefit of the broader society as for the benefits accrued to any specific workers.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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