Unionism in the private sector is not just down; it’s almost out. Membership has been falling steadily for half a century and is now circling the drain, with membership at 7.5% of the workforce. In 1953 it was 36%.
This disastrous decline has been partly masked by the simultaneous growth of unions in the public sector. While private unions sank, public ones climbed from near-zero in the 1950’s to around 36%, where it has held steady since 1980. Decline has also been disguised by the growing political power of the union movement, as its electoral organizing skills have improved even as membership organizing has languished.
Why the decline? Why have private sector workers stopped joining unions?
The unions have a ready answer: it’s too hard to organize because employers cheat. They scare and intimidate and fire workers who try to organize.
Undoubtedly true, in too many cases. Union-busting consultants have a bag of anti-union tricks that can certainly make certification elections hard to win.
But that just begs the question. Why only now? Didn’t employers know these tricks during all the years unions were growing? Didn’t Henry Ford know how to intimidate workers? Didn’t the steel companies? Didn’t construction firms? Coal-mine operators? The Mohawk Valley Formula for union-busting was devised by the companies back in 1936.
So why are so many unions now stymied by employer opposition?
Other possible explanations for union decline abound. Many heavily unionized manufacturing and textile industries have moved jobs overseas in search of lower costs.
But other industries that are largely homebound have not been organized in their place.
And in fact many newer industries (high-tech, for instance) are often fairly good employers, offering decent benefits and workplace flexibility in a conscious effort to attract a happy, productive, and non-union workforce.
Private sector unions may be short of members, but not of excuses.
One industry in particular looks like it ought to be a prime target for union organizers, no matter what: big-box retail. Wal-Mart pays low wages and low benefits. Wal-Mart can’t move its stores to China (they’ll open new ones there, but not close down ones here). Wal-Mart workers are the very folks unions where created to help. So why aren’t they organized? That’s right – because Wal-Mart management is anti-union.
Wal-Mart: One company, 1.4 million unorganized, low-paid, benefitless workers spread across America. And what has been labor’s response, after a few unsuccessful campaigns?
“STOP WAL-MART!” Boycott Wal-Mart! Shop at their competitors, like Target and Costco (both mostly non-union). And of course, pass the laughably-titled “Employee Free Choice Act”, so in case we get cards (one way or another), we can bypass the election process with its secret-ballot nonsense.
(See “EFCA: Bad For Unions”, in my archive or at National Review Online )
Of course, if EFCA is passed, labor’s bluff will be called. But what will unions really get for this anti-democratic, protectionist bit of organizational affirmative action? Will they then be able to organize Wal-Mart? What do you think?
If unions could get past their anger, resentment, and frustration, they might ask: “What would it take to organize Wal-Mart stores, or their counterparts like Costco, Target, and the rest?”
The answer is a tough one. It will take a new type of unionism, one we haven’t invented yet. One with no reliance on retro New-Deal Solidarity nostalgia. A unionism without a blue-state ethos. One that doesn’t make the Democratic Party the centerpiece of all our hopes and dreams. One that works to get workers better pay and benefits, not to serve a political party.
Unions nostalgic for the 1930’s should re-examine the real history of the CIO.
A century ago, Henry Ford had a great idea: if he could make cars cheaper, he could sell more of them. Then he figured out how to make them cheaper. And he sold more.
Then, visionary union leaders had another great idea: if they could invent new unions that would be relevant to the new auto workers, they could help the workers and build the union movement.
So they did it. And America was better for both. In slightly simplistic terms, it is thanks to Henry Ford and the UAW that workers could afford to buy cars.
Sam Walton rediscovered Henry Ford’s idea, and has remade American society as a result. Some find Sam’s creation as distasteful and unaesthetic as the automobile itself, but a lot of Americans seem to like lower prices and broader selection. Wal-Mart is here to stay.
But where are the union visionaries who can see their way to the future? If labor can’t figure out how to organize businesses like Wal-Mart, they can kiss the private sector good bye. For those who think unions play a necessary role in our society, the consequences are worth contemplating.
The outlook? Not good. Not good.