Striking out

Money The long and steady descent of labor unions continues | Warren Cole Smith

Striking out

UNION FADE: A school bus driver stands in a picket line outside of a bus depot in New York
Justin Lane/EPA/Newscom

1912 was a propitious year for the American labor movement. The Lawrence (Mass.) Textile Strike fought for a 54-hour workweek and better wages. That year also saw the birth of folk music icon Woody Guthrie, whose music championed union causes.

But 2012? Not so much. Figures released in January by the Bureau of Labor Statistics say the percentage of workers belonging to unions (“union density”) fell to 11.3 percent in 2012, the lowest percentage since 1935, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act, requiring employers to engage in collective bargaining. 

Total membership in unions in 2012 was 14.4 million, a drop of 400,000 from the year before. Government employees accounted for more than half the loss. Cash-strapped state and local governments laid off or cut back on hiring teachers, firefighters, and other employees, almost all of whom are union workers.

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Mainstream media accounts told this story with a touch of gloom, suggesting that low union density was bad for Middle America. The Reuters news service, for example, noted that union members “had median weekly earnings of $943—27 percent more than the $743 of those whose pay was not collectively bargained.”

But James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation said differences in education, employer size, and geography account for most of that gap.

Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University, agreed that the so-called wage gap is “not a valid comparison. Union jobs are the kinds of jobs that are paid more anyway. Many people have in their minds the old stereotype of union members as semi-skilled men wearing hardhats. That’s simply not the profile anymore.”

Chaison also said higher union wages in manufacturing also often correlate to higher unemployment rates. Ultimately, he said, the marketplace determines wages: “The greater the gap between union and non-union wages, the less competitive union employers can be, and the more disadvantaged unionized companies and their employees will be.” 

Recent Labor Department data support his conclusion. The four states with the nation’s worst unemployment rates—Nevada, Rhode Island, California, and New Jersey—are among the highest union density states. The four states with the lowest unemployment rates—North Dakota, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming—are among the lowest in union density.

The 2012 numbers continue a decline that began in the 1950s, when union density peaked at nearly a third of all American workers. Rapid U.S. population growth masked declining union density for the next two decades. By the early ’80s, the percentage of union workers had fallen to about 20 percent. Then a former union president, Ronald Reagan, broke the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981 and decertified their union.

That defining moment in American labor history exposed the vulnerabilities of unions, both politically and in the public’s perception. A Gallup poll at the time said 59 percent of Americans agreed with Reagan, while 30 percent sided with the unions. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s recall election in 2012 was in some ways a replay of that 1981 showdown. Walker’s win again highlighted the fact that unions had neither the political power nor the public sympathy they enjoyed in the past.

So are unions dead? Hardly. Despite or perhaps because of their diminished size, they’ve learned to punch above their weight. In the 2012 election cycle, unions spent more than $400 million on mostly Democratic candidates, including President Barack Obama. And unions showed surprising 2012 growth in the Sunbelt and Oil Patch states of Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas, though most analysts believe these gains are temporary, driven by booming local economies.

Despite these signs of life, union decline will likely continue. In the long run, the marketplace wins. Back in 1912, for example, workers won temporary concessions in the Lawrence Textile Strike. But within a year those concessions had disappeared, and within a decade, the entire textile industry had moved to the largely non-union states of the South. 

The 1912 strike did, however, make one lasting impression. The slogan of the Lawrence strike—“No Gods, No Masters”—became the battle cry of abortionists, anarchists, and many feminists and unionists for the next 100 years.

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