Going from a high-water mark of 35 per cent (in the 1950s) to the measly 12 per cent it is today, national union membership has clearly taken a beating. Lots of reasons, not least of which is passage of the Taft-Hartley Act (1947), which, with its comprehensive restrictions on union activities, has proven to be a genuine impediment to the labor movement.
Taft-Hartley aside, here are three larger, overarching factors that have contributed to the decline of unions.
1. The hollowing-out of the country’s manufacturing base and, with it, a decline in those industry jobs which, historically, had not only been strongly organized but well paid.
We’re speaking mainly of the automobile, steel, paper, and heavy equipment industries.
Even the auto industry, represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW)-one of the most successful and innovative unions in American history-took tremendous hits during the seventies and eighties, losing hundreds of thousands of members.
Americans are still buying cars and trucks at a brisk pace, but it no longer even registers as "news" that foreign markets have decimated U.S. sales. That is now a "given." And those Japanese auto companies that have set up shop in the U.S. made certain to situate their plants in right-to-work states in the Deep South, areas hostile to organized labor.
If we subtract all the non-manufacturing and service jobs (nurses, civil servants, police and firemen, teachers, etc.), there are barely 6 per cent of union workers engaged in the manufacture of products. When you lose your base you can’t expect to maintain your membership. Worse news: Unless something momentous and unforeseen occurs, it’s unlikely we’re ever going to get these industries back to anything approaching their previous numbers. That era, along with the quality jobs and UAW glory that went with it, is over.
2. Government has assumed custody of key union provisions.
From overtime pay to hours of work, to guaranteed days off and employees’ rights and standards, laws have been passed by the state and federal governments to address such issues. Government has effectively co-opted much of what only union contracts traditionally did.
For example, where joining a union was once the only way to get premium pay for overtime, or "penalty pay" for showing up and being sent home when there was no work, those goodies are now mandated by state and federal statutes.
Safety is another example. Where it once required specific language in a union contract to insure that a workplace was safe and secure, the passage, in 1970, of the Occupation Health and Safety Act (OSHA), made every employer in the country accountable to a federal safety code. Today, an employee need only pick up the phone and dial OSHA’s number to complain about an unsafe working condition and, chances are, he will be placed in contact with a field agent.
Tangentially, many businesses manage to keep unions out by providing their employees with comparable wages and benefits. Even though union wages are still significantly higher, across the board, than non-union wages, many companies are able to keep out unions by providing compensation and benefits (vacations, pensions, health insurance) that compare favorably to those of union shops, thus obviating the need for organizing.
What hurts most in these cases is that the people ("free riders") receiving these comparable wages and benefits think they’re making it on their own, without having to rely on a union. In truth, without the existence of unions, there’s no telling how low base wages for unskilled blue-collar work would fall, with nothing to prop them up except the federal minimum wage.
3. Changes in demographics and culture.
There is a decreased respect for the role of organized labor, for its founders, its battles, its overall narrative, and an alarming lack of interest in labor’s political and social implications.
High school history and civic textbooks of the Baby Boomer generation (and the one preceding it) routinely included accounts of the achievements of labor leaders such as Samuel Gompers, John L. Lewis, Walter Reuther, et al, mentioning them in much the same way they mentioned political leaders and social reformers.
Today, it would be ludicrous to expect a high school history text to single out specific contemporary labor leaders who’ve made a difference-unless it was something scandalous or bizarre (e.g., the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa).
We’ve also witnessed a marked decline in our sense of community. This can be seen in the fact that fewer people are willing to march in Labor Day parades, or enroll in social clubs or civic organizations, or attend community events.
And there is a obvious spillover into politics. Today, everybody seems to want to call himself an independent rather than a Republican or Democrat, having grown increasingly frustrated with the traditional two-party system. The same sense of faux-independence applies to working people as well. Workers prefer to think of themselves as incipient, yet-to-be-realized entrepreneurs rather than proletarian toilers.
Identifying oneself as part of a larger entity-a union, a community, even a neighborhood-no longer holds the appeal it once did, just as collectivism no longer makes as much sense as it once did. With everyone’s sights set on upward mobility, fewer people are comfortable publicly identifying themselves as blue-collar, because doing so cuts them off from the prestige that comes from lucrative jobs/careers.
With those values now in play, who the hell wants to march down Main Street in a Labor Day parade wearing union colors?
There’s an anecdote told about John D. Rockefeller which reflects this change in cultural attitudes. It occurred during the Depression. A group of poor people congregated outside the gate of Rockefeller’s mansion, and began banging the covers of his metal trash cans and shouting insults, making a terrible racket.
The police were summoned. But because the police were sympathetic to the demonstrators, they waited several minutes, watching the protest with interest, before breaking up the demonstration. Their deep-seated sympathies lay with the protesters.
Today, that episode would play out differently. Besides poor people not having access to a wealthy industrialist’s home (he’d be isolated inside a gated estate, with his own private security force patrolling the place), it’s unlikely the city police would react sympathetically.
Rather, they’d treat the demonstrators like criminal trespassers and drive them away, possibly arrest them. They would likely treat them with contempt. Why? Because working people don’t have the core respect they once had. Simple as that.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org