The Big Picture: The Devastated House of Labor

This is the 18th installment of The Big Picture, a public symposium on what’s at stake in Trump’s America, co-organized by Public Books and NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge. RSVP for The Big Picture event at NYU on November 7, 2017.
American workers are heterogeneous politically, as well as racially, ethnically, and educationally. Unions are equally mixed. Some unions focus primarily on the narrow economic interests of their ...

American workers are heterogeneous politically, as well as racially, ethnically, and educationally. Unions are equally mixed. Some unions focus primarily on the narrow economic interests of their members, and others have strong commitments to social justice. Despite their differences, virtually all unions and their confederations in the post-WWII era increasingly advocated racial inclusiveness and greater economic equality. The unions, while often protectionist on trade, used their members’ electoral clout and their organizations’ money on behalf of social safeguards and public goods. But the once strong house of labor—a significant force in American politics and economics since at least the 1930s—has been largely devastated.

Union decline has been long in coming and is now close to complete, and Trump is among the beneficiaries politically. Without empowered labor unions—or something that takes their place—it is far harder to wage an effective fight against Trump and for a more equitable distribution of power and profits. Unions lobby to protect and expand rights, incomes, pensions, education, health care. They offer civic education and mobilize voters and voices. As they shrink in scope, fewer people benefit from their negotiating strength, and more workers from once heavily unionized regions of the country veer rightward.

Let us be clear. Progressivism is not a necessary trait of workers, even among those most harmed by the excesses of capitalism, by exploitative employers, or by opportunistic politicians. Friedrich Engels was mistaken in his prediction that the working class would succeed in using “paper stones”—that is, the ballot—to vote in a socialist alternative to capitalism. He failed to comprehend either the numerical growth of the middle class, which historically has had little interest in creating a socialist system, or the disinterest in socialism exhibited over the last century-plus by so much of the working class in the advanced capitalist democracies.1

This disinterest has become particularly clear in recent decades in the United States, as symbolized by the rise of so-called “Reagan Democrats,” blue-collar workers who cast their lot with Reagan’s Republicans. Union members often value, and attempt to protect, jobs in industries that harm the environment and climate, and they are also far too often opponents of liberal immigration policies. Reagan played on this, and, a generation on, Trump has done so even more.

With the decline in unions, we lose a mediating association that has been critical to negotiating economic conflict and creating a countervailing balance to corporate power.

What happened? After all, American unions were once a key component of a larger social movement and a bulwark of the Democratic Party from the New Deal years on.2 In the 19th century, the Knights of Labor aimed to build a class-based coalition for change. The Seattle General Strike of 1919 remains a beacon of the potential for normal workers to democratically govern a city on behalf of all.3 The great strikes of the 1930s were generally waged by industrial unions committed to social democratic and sometimes communist principles, to the point that corporate and governmental leaders feared a Bolshevik revolution in the United States.

The key to progressive labor organizations is having leaders and governance structures that provide credible information about how the world really works, as well as education about issues that are crucial to their members’ and potential members’ economic and social well-being.4 Some unions actively encourage their members to make collective commitments to causes that are far beyond what they can demand of employers in terms of material gains. Most have (or had) leaders immersed in syndicalist, socialist, or communist ideology, and at least some of their grassroots members adhered to similarly radical political values. Many truly adhered to the old Wobbly and current ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) slogan: “An injury to one is an injury to all”—with the all being all exploited people, not just those in their union. The ILWU is an exemplar here: the union refused to ship scrap iron to Japan after its invasion of Manchuria in 1938, and later they refused to unload goods from Apartheid South Africa. Although the personal costs were potentially high (lost pay, jail, lost jobs), the union and its members persisted.

For the first few decades after World War II, they persisted in the face of growing institutional opposition. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act facilitated firm-centered (rather than industry-wide) bargaining, and in doing so made union organizing more difficult. Yet despite this, union power in America increased. So did the role of unions in popular culture: the meme was Big Labor as an equal with Big Business and Big Government. Major newspapers of the time regularly covered union actions. By the 1970s, more than 20 million Americans were in unions, which remained a vital part of the Democratic Party’s coalition, helping to protect working people within the broader American economy.

Then things began to change—and union power began being rolled back, first gently and then with increasing ferocity. Several factors led to the devastation in the house of labor. Even in its heyday, the labor movement failed to represent that part of the labor force working in the agricultural, domestic, and low-end service sectors. After the Reagan onslaught, the employers regained the upper hand, knowing that government would either look the other way or actively assist in the employer campaign to undermine unions organizing more workers and effectively enforcing collective bargaining rights. Moreover, enough time had gone by since the acme of labor organizing that young workers no longer credited unions with the improvements in their standard of living. The combined loss of power and the increased focus of many unions on particularistic gains made it difficult for unions, even the large confederations, to block the policies that amplify inequality in the US. One result in recent decades has been real wage declines even as US productivity has grown.


Dependent Contractors

By Juli Qermezi Huang

At the turn into the 21st century, survey evidence reveals that workers still wanted unions.5 A 2002 study, confirmed with additional data in 2005, found that more than 50 percent of non-union, non-managerial workers preferred union representation. The percentages were particularly high among 18- to 34-year-olds (58 percent), those with incomes under $40,000 (59 percent), and minorities (74 percent). Fifteen years on, it would be worth doing such an analysis today, particularly among younger workers. My own research on and experience with those employed in the new gig economy suggest that interest in having a voice no longer translates into interest in being represented by a union, an organization perceived as constraining individual prerogatives while taking a cut for doing so.

In 2016 the total union membership in the combined public and private sectors was only 10.7 percent of all non-agricultural wage and salary workers, or 14.6 million people.6 Unions have always been weak in the South and in the non-coastal western states. For the industrial heartlands, the decline in membership over recent years is notable. South Carolina has the lowest membership at 1.6 percent. The highest southern state is Alabama, at 8.1 percent, placing it in a dead heat with Wisconsin, which used to be a union stronghold.

These aggregate figures hide the real story, however. Only 6.4 percent of private sector workers now belong to unions, down from the high of over 35 percent in 1954. By and large, what is keeping unions alive is government employment: 34.4 percent of public sector workers belong to unions. And yet the future of public sector unions is, arguably, tenuous.7

Note the reactions against them in once union-proud states such as Wisconsin. There is, in these states, growing antagonism among the public to the demands and strikes of government employees. At the same time, government austerity measures have further undermined the strength of the public sector. All evidence suggests that Trump will perpetuate the undermining of workers’ rights and wages. He has yet to tweet much about government unions, but he froze employment in the civil service, chose a VP with a proven anti-union record, and appointed a union-hostile Secretary of Labor.

With each transformation in the economy, a new form of unionism has arisen with its own particular strategies.

In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act made it possible to create what became known as “right-to-work” laws, which enabled workers to opt out of dues-paying even when gaining the benefits of representation. Eleven states, most of them in the south, immediately adopted “right to work” regulations. Another five more became “right to work” by 1955. Today 28 states and Guam have this status. As a result, union power nationally has been decimated.

In the late 1990s and again in the Obama era, there was some guarded optimism that these trends could be reversed, that unions could regain some of their leverage and that a new generation of labor activists might even take leadership on questions of equality and equity, both economic and racial.8 There is no such hope with Trump, a man with a long history of hostility to unions and to fair labor practices, and whose interests lie in further decimating any source of potentially progressive opposition. He appeals to many workers, but plays only to their basest interests and their current fears.

Without question, manufacturing—the basis of the grand industrial unions—has been disappearing from the United States for several decades. And whatever Trump’s rhetoric around protectionism and manufacturing, it is most unlikely that he will be able to re-industrialize the heartlands. People are hurting, and they no longer believe that their children will be better off than they were. They are looking for a scapegoat, and they demand a silver bullet to restore what they once had. Instead of advocating for programs to assist those in need and those striving to prepare themselves for the transformation of the economy, Trump pushes his protectionist trade policies, a hard line on immigration, and tax reform, none of which will ultimately benefit those left behind by recent economic trends. He does this by making exaggerated and often decidedly false claims that American jobs have gone overseas or to new immigrants; and he ignores the role of technological change.

This strategy, while unlikely to actually generate manufacturing jobs in the US, has the added benefit of demonizing unions—such as the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Service Employees International Union (SEIU)—that are growing in prominence and that disproportionately represent immigrant labor. Trump’s analysis may be largely inaccurate, but it finds resonance among white workers, whose jobs are precarious and whose standard of living is falling. And it supports the efforts to weaken the labor movement further.


The Big Picture: Multiracial Cooperation

By William Julius Wilson

Some union members and former members do continue to engage in progressive social movements and strive to mobilize votes for politicians who will genuinely serve their interests. They are leading the way in campaigns to unionize low-income workers, to legislate the $15 living wage, and to defend the Affordable Care Act. These campaigns deserve as much support and backing as we can provide.

But, according to the AFL-CIO, 3 percent more union members voted for Trump than voted for Romney, and 10 percent fewer for Clinton than for Obama.9 Some of those union members—to our detriment, and ultimately theirs as well—have turned to the angry and racist populism of the right. This sort of electoral upheaval has happened before: in Nazi Germany, in Fascist Italy, and in Peronist Argentina. However, in those cases, the unions themselves, not simply some of the union members, turned to the right. What we are seeing in America is different, representing a decline in organizational reach. Union activists may still be progressive, but their message of a wide-ranging cross-class coalition has lost its appeal to most of those in the labor force, as well as to many of their own members.

With the decline in unions, we lose a mediating association that has been critical to negotiating economic conflict and creating a countervailing balance to corporate power. It may be difficult, if not impossible, to revive the labor movement we once knew; the unions of the past are not the organizations that speak to the workers of today. With each transformation in the economy, a new form of unionism has arisen with its own particular strategies: craft unions controlled the supply of labor; industrial unions engaged in large-scale strikes; service unions rely on strikes but also class action law suits and legislation.

We spend a lot of time worrying about candidates and proposed laws. The real challenge is to invent innovative mediating labor and other associations that meet the needs of citizens in the contemporary political economy. This means developing movements for mobilizing large numbers into cohesive wholes and inspiring adherents to act in the interest of others. Without such new and effective mediating associations, Trump will get a second term. Even worse, he will be but the first in the line of many autocratic presidents, tone-deaf to the workers and the poor, and indifferent to the rule of law and the norms of a civil society. And his successors are likely to be far more competent, effective, and destructive of what makes America great. icon

  1. Adam Przeworski and John Sprague, Paper Stones: A History of Electoral Socialism (Cambridge University Press, 1986).
  2. J. David Greenstone, Labor in American Politics (Vintage Books, 1969); Peter L. Francia, The Future of Organized Labor in American Politics (Columbia University Press, 2006).
  3. Victoria Johnson, How Many Machine Guns Does it Take to Cook One Meal? The Seattle and San Francisco General Strikes (University of Washington Press, 2008); Jeremy Brecher, Strike! (South End Press, 1997).
  4. John S. Ahlquist and Margaret Levi, In the Interests of Others (Princeton University Press, 2013).
  5. Richard Freeman, “Do Workers Still Want Unions? More than Ever!” Briefing Paper No. 182, Economic Policy Institute, February 22, 2007; Jake Rosenfeld, What Unions No Longer Do (Harvard University Press, 2014).
  6. Union Membership (Annual) New Release,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 26, 2017.
  7. John S. Ahlquist, “Public Sector Unions Need the Private Sector (Or Why the Wisconsin Protests Were Not Labor’s Lazarus Moment),” The Forum, vol. 10, no. 1 (2012).
  8. Bill Fletcher, Jr., and Fernando Gapasin, Solidarity Divided (University of California Press, 2008); Dorian T. Warren, “‘Labor in American Politics’: Continuities, Changes, and Challenges for the Twenty-First-Century Labor Movement,” Polity, vol. 42, no. 3 (2010), pp. 286–92.
  9. Sean Higgins, “Union Voters Swung Behind Trump, Richard Trumka says,” Washington Examiner, August 30, 2017.
Featured image: Workers on strike in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2012. Photograph by Joe Brusky / Flickr