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What Happens If Labor Dies?

The only way unions can regain their strength and provide a counterweight to corporate power is if liberals join the fight.

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It doesn’t seem to matter that these images don’t conform to present reality. Today, there are millions more unionized teachers than unionized truckers. Of the six unions with more than a million members, two are headed by lesbians and one by an African American, a level of diversity in these troglodytic institutions not to be found on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley. A number of unions, particularly the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), play a central role in the political mobilization of Latinos, the group most likely to transform the American electorate. The AFL-CIO opposed the Iraq War and last year provisioned Occupy Wall Street.

But labor’s anachronistic image persists, and for a reason: It stubbornly represents blue-collar workers long after they’ve gone out of style and their numbers have diminished. It speaks for autoworkers and steelworkers, for the cutting-edge industries of 1935. To the young, even to most campus activists, unions are a holdover from their great-grandparents’ generation, speaking a language as incomprehensible as Old English: solidarity, shop stewards, seniority, strikes. Where are unions in the new economy? Can a union do anything for a temp? A part-timer? A software writer? A barista? Will anyone under 30—will anyone over 30—even notice if unions cease to be?

II. A Union-Free America

Here's what happens if the dinosaur dies. When unions vanish, ordinary Americans lose their right to bargain collectively for their pay and benefits. Even those who have never bargained collectively will feel the loss. Some years ago, when unions were big enough that their effect on the larger economy could be measured, Princeton economist Henry Farber concluded that the wages of nonunion workers in industries that were 25 percent unionized were 7.5 percent higher than they’d be if their industry were union-free. When unionized companies were common, firms that were nonunion had to mimic the wages and benefits of their unionized counterparts for fear that their employees would leave or, worse, organize. That was certainly the practice at General Electric and other largely nonunion giants.

Nonetheless, union workers generally maintained a 20 percent wage advantage over nonunion workers. The key to the wage advantage is the percentage of union membership in a given industry or market. In cities where nearly all the class-A hotels are unionized, as they are in New York and San Francisco, housekeepers make more than $20 an hour. In cities where roughly half of such hotels are unionized, such as Los Angeles, their hourly wage is about $15. In cities where all the hotels are nonunion, such as Phoenix, housekeepers make little more than the minimum wage, if that.

From 1947 through 1973, when union density in America was at its peak, real wages for nonmanagerial employees rose by 75 percent. From 1979 through 2006, as union density collapsed, real wages for nonmanagerial employees rose by only 4 percent. Unable to get a raise, American households maintained their standard of living during those years by women entering the workforce and by going into debt.

 Density is just one element of unions’ ability to raise wages, however. The other is strikes. We look back now at the three decades of broadly shared prosperity that followed World War II as a time of union-management concord, when executives made their peace with unions and unions didn’t rock the boat. In fact, more strikes occurred from the late 1940s through the early 1970s than before or since. When union contracts expired, workers and managers fought pitched battles over the terms of the next contract. The largest strike in American history came in 1959, amid the sleepy Eisenhower years, when 500,000 steelworkers stayed off the job for 116 days. It was through such expedients that workers compelled management to let them share in their company’s proceeds. But as density declined, unions’ ability to win strikes declined with it. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, unions were striking less to win raises than to resist management proposals to freeze wages and cut benefits. The weaker unions grew, the fewer their strikes. In the early 1950s, there were roughly 350 strikes in the United States every year. Over the past decade, there have been roughly 10 to 20 per year.

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