What Happens If Labor Dies?
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Imagine America without unions. This shouldn’t be hard. In much of America unions have already disappeared. In the rest of America they’re battling for their lives.
Unions have been declining for decades. In the early 1950s, one out of three American workers belonged to them, four out of ten in the private sector. Today, only 11.8 percent of American workers are union members; in the private sector, just 6.9 percent. The vanishing act varies by region—in the South, it’s almost total—but proceeds relentlessly everywhere. Since 1983, the number of states in which at least 10 percent of private-sector workers have union contracts has shrunk from 42 to 8.
Following the 2010 elections, a number of newly elected Republican governors and legislatures in the industrial Midwest, long a union stronghold, moved to reduce labor’s numbers to the trace-element levels that exist in the South. A cold political logic spurred their attacks: Labor was the chief source of funding and volunteers for their Democratic opponents, and working-class whites, who still constitute a sizable share of the electorate in their states, were far more likely to vote Democratic if they belonged to a union. The fiscal crisis of the states provided the pretext for Republicans to try to take out their foremost adversaries, public-employee unions.
In Indiana, Governor Mitch Daniels signed a “right to work” law giving nonunion members who enjoyed the benefits of a union contract the right to withhold dues to the union, making Indiana the first Midwestern state to pass such legislation. In Ohio, Governor John Kasich signed a bill repealing collective-bargaining rights for all public employees, but voters overturned that law at the polls. In Wisconsin, which had been the first state to extend those rights to public-sector workers, Governor Scott Walker also repealed those rights, but more selectively than Kasich: He kept them for police and firefighters. When outraged unionists and their allies mounted a recall campaign against him, Walker beat them back handily. In the nation’s capital, Republican senators and congressmen refused to confirm President Barack Obama’s appointees to the National Labor Relations Board, which adjudicates labor-management relations in the private sector.
Coming on the heels of the failure of the Democratic Congress of 2009–2010 to amend the National Labor Relations Act so that private--sector workers wouldn’t risk their jobs by forming a union, the Midwestern setbacks struck a growing number of commentators as labor’s death knell. Losing jobs as technology transformed workplaces, losing both jobs and middle-class wages as globalization transformed the economy, and blocked by statute and employer opposition from expanding—unions, some concluded, were history.
Within the labor movement, a number of leaders and activists quietly shared the same pessimism. They had invested in organizing with little to show for it. They had invested in politics but found that the Democrats they’d helped elect could not—or worse, would not—come to their aid. In 2008, they had seen the entire edifice of deregulated capitalism totter and almost collapse, plunging the nation into its deepest and most intractable recession since the 1930s. But unlike the ’30s, when workers flocked to unions, the current recession has only intensified labor’s downward spiral and business’s ascent. “What would it take for labor to come back?” one senior union staffer asked earlier this year. “This was the crisis we were waiting for, and it didn’t do it.”
For many Americans, the death of labor would doubtless seem the natural order of things, the dinosaur finally shuffling off to the graveyard. Unions have no presence in the hottest and hippest sectors of the economy, in high-tech, fashion, and finance. The public’s image of labor is a memory of a memory that’s anywhere from 50 to 100 years old—the Yiddish- and Italian--speaking seamstresses of the Lower East Side, the goons in On the Waterfront, and, for the historically sentient, George Meany puffing a cigar and damning the Vietnam peaceniks.