Why November 23 Is More Central to the Future of Labor Than Obama's Election Was

Now that the elections are over, trade unionists should be clear on one point:  President Obama’s reelection will have little effect on the long term future of unionism in the United States.  This is not to say the election was unimportant or to even argue that labor’s electoral strategy was misplaced.  Rather, it is simply to say that the decades’ long decline of unionism cannot be reversed (or even significantly impacted) by a Presidential election.   

This is not to say that the recent election did not matter.  The parties do differ on social issues, on issues of tax policy, and on limited issues of labor rights.  Nor is it to discount Republican threats, such as right to scab legislation or measures attacking public employee bargaining.   In the coming months, major battles loom such as the manufactured “fiscal cliff,” important questions of taxation, and hopefully even a fight over anti-democratic Senate filibuster rules.  All of these are important reasons for the labor movement not to simply ignore the political arena.  

It is equally important, however, that unionists be clear that the decline in union density cannot be resolved at the ballot box.   While this point may seem obvious, given labor’s constant pull towards electoral politics reviewing the reason this is the case may be useful.    

First, the long term decline of trade unionism has continued uninterrupted under both Democratic and Republican administrations over the last thirty years.  Union density in the private sector dropped from 20.1% in 1980 to 11.4% in 1992 under the Reagan/Bush administrations.   Over the next twenty years, density has declined at a steady rate during a mixture of Republican and Democratic administrations, dropping to 6.9 % in 2011.   

If a change in party affiliation of the Presidency mattered significantly, one would expect to see a change in that trend line.  This does not mean there is no difference between the parties on other issues, just that the differences are not ones which impact the key question of union density.  So to the extent we value the continued existence of the labor movement, we need to focus on what can actually reverse the decline in union density.  

Second, on the related issue of union bargaining power, there has been no difference in union strength under Republican and Democratic administrations.  Strike levels dropped sharply with the employer offensive of the early 1980s and continued a fairly steady decline over the next two decades.   Work stoppages slightly increased under the last two years of the Obama administration.  That, however, is not necessarily an indication of increased union power as employer lockouts are at record levels and many of these stoppages were employer-provoked strikes ending in full or partial concessions.   

Simply put, unions have been hammered at the bargaining table for three decades now.  Changing political parties has not altered the dynamics of collective bargaining.   Even appointing labor-friendly National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) members has not helped increase union bargaining power because, as discussed below, the rules that really matter are so well-entrenched the NLRB is powerless to change them.

Third, even when one takes a look the impact of policy initiatives directly contributing to the decline of unionism, it is hard to discern a clear difference between the parties.  Policies of both parties directly contributed to the decline in union density.  For example, the North American Free Trade Agreement pushed through by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s is credited with the destruction of hundreds of thousands of jobs, many of them union jobs.  Even accounting for the positive initiatives such as the auto rescue, it’s hard to make an argument that differences in government policy have significantly altered union density figures.  

Finally, and most important, the major impediments to union revival are precisely those which are rarely discussed, even by the labor movement.   The major “rules of the game” hamstringing the labor movement stretch back well over half a century.   Since the late 1930s employers have been allowed to penalize striking workers by permanently replacing them with scabs, the restrictions on solidarity date back to Taft-Hartley legislation of the late 1940s, and the freeing of capital from the constraints of labor contracts occurred largely via Supreme Court decisions in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

None of these defining ‘rules of the game’ are remotely on the policy table nor are they items a pro-labor NLRB has the inclination or the power to change.  With the labor movement unable to force even the very limited changes specified in the Employee Free Choice Act through Congress, there is little reason to believe the far-greater changes needed to revive the labor movement have any chance of passage any time soon.  Yet, as I argue in my book Reviving the Strike, these are exactly the rules that must change for there to be any chance for labor to recover power.  

The labor movement will continue the push-pull with the Democratic Party for the foreseeable future.  Lacking an independent base of economic power, the remaining pockets of unionism in the private sector are dependent on what little government support they can garner.    Realistically, despite labor’s saber-rattling in off years, labor’s dependable support for Democrats is not going to change.  

What can change, however, is our perspective and what we do following the elections.  Recognizing that the election cannot significantly impact union density should prompt a discussion of what actually could revive labor.   Such a discussion should include an analysis of the legal impediments to effective unionism, the fundamental problems with union economic strategy, and the crisis of collective bargaining.   

In conclusion, I will assert that most important date for the future of US trade unionism in the United States in 2012 will not prove to be November 6 but rather, November 23.   On Black Friday, workers have announced a strike and boycott of Walmart on the busiest shopping day of the year.  No-one expects these actions to actually shut down Walmart, or probably even significantly dent operations or sales.  They do signal, however, a new and developing trend within labor—a strike-based, minority unionism approach to organizing the unorganized.  Now that is change we truly can believe in.  

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