The decline of American labor unions

I was a member of Local 17 of the Newspaper Guild for 24 years, but even when I was not a union member, I benefited from the strength of American labor unions.  My union local had little clout, truth be told; there was too high a turnover among us reporters, and we were too easily replaced.  But the International Typographers Union had a lot of clout, and we journalists benefited from that, because it didn’t look right that we college graduates be paid less than skilled blue-collar workers.

There was a time when the labor movement as a whole had clout, as Richard Yeselson observed in The New Republic.

When union membership peaked in the mid 1950s at about 35 percent, it was disproportionately weighted to the Northeast, the Midwest, and California. But that meant that in those regions—the most populous in the country—either a worker was in a union himself/herself, had a family member in a union, or, at least, had a friend or neighbor in a union. People, for better or worse, knew what unions did and understood them to be an almost ordinary part of the workings of democratic capitalism.

Most important, they knew, for better or worse, that unions had power.  Sixty years ago, the UAW or the Mineworkers or the Steelworkers, not only deeply affected crucial sectors of an industrial economy, they also demanded respect from broader society—demands made manifest in the “political strikes” they organized, whether legally or not, to protest the issues of the day.  Millions supported these strikes, millions despised them—but nobody could ignore them.  The charismatic leaders of these unions, men like Walter Reuther and John L. Lewis, were household names to most Americans. … …

A MEMORY FROM my slothful days as a graduate student some 30 years ago: I’m sitting around my apartment watching day-time television, The Phil Donahue Show, on a day when the guest was the head of the machinist’s union, William Winpisinger. Already, labor was in decline, but the machinists were a million member union at the time and they patrolled key military and commercial companies like General Dynamics and Boeing. And Winpisinger was a piece of work: a blustery, belligerent, union militant.

As always, the conflict formula for talk shows eventually took hold, and Winpisinger received a barrage of hostile questions from Donahue’s audience.  So, he stood up—a big, bald headed guy—and went to the front of the stage to take the attacks head on.  It was great television, and “Wimpy,” as he was known in the movement, was anything but.  One guy stood up and said something like, “Why should I care about your membership? They’re making more money than I am, they have better benefits than I do. Who needs you or them?”

Wimpy’s response was to turn on the guy—again, this is from memory, but it’s of a piece with his career—and bellow, “What are you yelling at me for, you jerk. Rather than attack workers who have organized themselves into a union and are doing better than you because of it, why don’t you organize a union yourself?! Then you can get better pay and benefits, too!”  Somewhere in West Philadelphia, a lazy grad student cheered.

via Not With a Bang, But a Whimper.

Today a small but shrinking majority of the American people approve of labor unions, but to many people, especially young people, the idea of labor unions as a powerful force in American society seems like science fiction.

Derek Thompson, writing in The Atlantic, suggested that the rise and fall of American unions was based on technology.  Factory workers in mass production industries were easy to organize, he wrote; workers in today’s high tech and service industries were harder to organize.  But in fact the unskilled manufacturing workers were very difficult to organize before the 1930s—that is, hard to organize for the skilled craft unions of the American Federation of Labor—because they were easy to replace.  The rise of industrial unions was the result of workers organizing themselves, and the CIO (Committee for Industrial Organization, later Congress of Industrial Organizations) following the workers’ lead.

Could this happen again?  Maybe.  The problem is that many Americans see the AFL-CIO and especially the public sector unions as part of the problem, not part of the solution. They see unions as part of the system, not as fighters to change the system.  Unions are on the defensive, fighting to preserve the wages and benefits of their own members, and not seen as advocating for the interests of American working people.  The AFL-CIO is wedded to the Democratic Party, whose leaders offer no solutions for unemployment, falling wages, foreclosures and the other problems of American working people.  For public support of labor unions to change, unions themselves will have to change.  I don’t have a good answer.

Click on Not With a Bang, But a Whimper: The Long, Slow Decline of America’s Labor Movement for Richard Yeselson’s full article.

Click on Who Killed American Labor Unions? for Derek Thompson’s article, from which the charts above were taken.

Click on The Decline and Fall of Organized Labor for an article by Bruce Bartlett in the online Fiscal Times.

Click on Why Is the Public Suddenly Down on Unions? for analysis of the decline of American public esteem for unions.

Click on U.S. Approval of Labor Unions Near Record Low for details about the Gallup poll.

Click on Unions Seen As Good for Workers, Not for U.S. Competitiveness for details about the Pew Research poll.

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One Response to “The decline of American labor unions”

  1. informationforager Says:

    This was really, really good. I had never heard of Wimpy before so I looked him up on the internet. Very interesting.

    Two things that have changed our world. According to the book and the documentary “The Corporation” the laws and understandings were forever changed by the Supreme Court recognizing corporations as people. This was apparently done through lawyers twisting the 14 amendment into making corporations equal with the people in the law. Again by recognizing them as people. From there New Jersey and Delaware changed their laws to make corporations less restricted(accountable). Because of this we have a society that says “lets gamble the family farm, we won’t be held accountable.”

    The other thing is that when Russia fell in the early 90’s and the Berlin wall was tore down many people thought that democracy had finally truly arrived.

    No, this was not the case. My friends and I realized that Capitalism would take over and perpetuate a society that values every man for himself. Thanks. Keep Blogging. Keep Writing.

    Like

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