Here’s issue #38 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 7/3/12. The previous newsletter described the role of unions. This newsletter outlines the reasons for the decline in private sector union membership.

Private sector union membership has dropped from 34% of the workforce in 1954 to 7% today. (Public sector union membership has grown from 10% to 37%, so that’s a different story for another day.) [1]

The Wagner Act of 1935 (also know as the National Labor Relations Act) created the basis for current labor unions. It was part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. It gave workers rights and protections in organizing unions and bargaining collectively. [2]

Employers, especially large corporations, have been pushing back ever since. Initial efforts to weaken the Act failed, until the Taft-Hartley Act was passed in 1947. It was vetoed by President Truman but the Republican Congress overrode his veto. Previously, employers were expected to remain neutral during union organizing efforts. Now employers were allowed to actively oppose unionization. Taft-Hartley also gave flexibility to states to regulate unions and prohibited secondary boycotts (where a union encourages customers not to buy the employers products). Requiring all employees of a unionized workplace to become union members was outlawed. It made union organizing much more difficult and is generally seen as the turning point in unionization in the US [3] (although membership continued to increase for 8 more years before beginning its long decline). In the last 30 years, labor laws have been weakened and the ones that remain are often not vigilantly enforced. [4]

Since the early 1980s, large employers have increasingly aggressively opposed unions. One strategy has been to increase competition among workers for jobs, particularly in the manufacturing and industrial sector that was the heart of middle class union jobs. For example:

  • Trade agreements, developed with corporate input, have few if any worker protections, which means US workers must compete against much cheaper labor in other countries
  • Differences in state labor laws and practices are used to make workers compete against workers in other states where unions are weaker, the standard of living and pay is lower, and state and local governments provide financial incentives for relocation of jobs
  • Threats to replace workers if they strike pit current workers against non-union and unemployed workers. Employers were emboldened in the use of this tactic by President Reagan’s firing and replacing of air traffic controllers when they went on strike [5]

Wal-Mart in particular is well known for it aggressive anti-union tactics, both in attacking any efforts to unionize (including eliminating business components where unionization seemed likely) and using part-time workers that are harder to unionize. [6] The widespread, increased use of part-time workers, contractors, and consultants effectively undermines the use of full-time, potentially union workers. The presence and hiring of immigrant workers, often undocumented ones, also weakens unions.

Weakened labor laws and weak enforcement undermines unions. For example, workers who engage in organizing efforts are not infrequently, illegally fired. However, the enforcement process typically takes many months if not years and if the firing is found to be illegal, typically the company is ordered to reinstate the worker with back pay. This provides only a small financial penalty to the employer and means the worker has to subsist for an extended period of time without the job. Under current law, there is a 45 to 90 day waiting period between the request for and occurrence of the secret ballot voting by employees for a union, and employers work to delay this even longer. In that time, the some employers retaliate against, fire, harass, and generally make life miserable for the pro-union employees, while actively campaigning against the union in mandatory meetings with employees, intimidating them into rejecting the union. [7] [8]

Finally, employers lobby and make campaign contributions to encourage public policies that weaken labor laws, unions, and their power. They band together for these activities and for media campaigns against unions through groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, Associated Builders and Contractors, The Center for Union Facts, and the National Right to Work Committee and Foundation. [9]

There are other factors, including unions’ internal problems (e.g., corruption and lack of democracy) and unions suffering from their success. For example, their success in improving pay, benefits, and working conditions left some workers feeling that union membership was not necessary, and through their success in advocacy and standard setting, government policies have addressed many of the issues that unions originally tackled, such as limits on working hours, overtime pay requirements, and health and safety issues. [10] [11]

In the US, since 1947, our politics and policies have given employers more clout in the balance of power between employers and employees. One of the effects has been the decline of private sector union membership from 34% to 7%. It doesn’t have to be this way. In Europe, although there has been some decline in union membership, it has been nowhere near as great as in the US and union membership currently ranges between 20% and 71% (in Sweden). [12] Corporations are more likely to work with their unions than to be aggressively anti-union as they are in theUS.

[1]       Bureau of LaborStatistics,US Dept. of Labor, 1/27/12, “Union members – 2011,” http://www.bls.gov

[2]       Wikipedia, retrieved 7/1/12, “National Labor Relations Act,” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nation_Labor_Relations_Act

[3]      Clark, B., retrieved 7/1/12, “The decline of unions – Why?” http://www.old-yankee.com/blog/decline-of-unions

[4]       Cassidy, J., 6/8/12, “America’s class war,” The New Yorker

[5]       About.com Economics, retrieved 7/1/12, “The decline of union power,” economics.about.com/od/laborinamerica/a/union_decline.htm

[6]       Wikipedia, retrieved 7/2/12, “Criticism of Walmart,” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_Walmart

[7]       Wikipedia, retrieved 4/23/12, “Labor unions in the United Sates,” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_unions_in_the_United_States

[8]       Reich, R., 6/14/11, “Why the Republican war on workers’ rights undermines the American economy,” robertreaich.org

[9]       Johnson, D., 9/1/10, “How companies turn people against unions,” Campaign forAmerica’s Future

[10]     Macaray, D., 1/10/08, “Three big reasons for the decline of labor unions,” CounterPunch

[11]     Hunter, R.P., 8/24/99, “Four reasons for the decrease in union membership,” http://www.mackinac.org

[12]     Fischer, C., 9/11/10, “Why has union membership declined?’ Economist’s View


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