- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2011


This is a readership that likes to go beyond the headlines, challenge the obvious and see what things really mean. So let’s do that with one of the striking features of our country’s industrial-relations system — the small and declining membership of the American labor movement.

Barely 12 percent of the work force belongs to a union. This weakens labor in practical ways while also enabling labor’s foes — business groups, conservatives and, these days, most Republican politicians — to assert its waning relevance in today’s world.

So this statistic bedevils the labor movement while giving comfort to its foes. But what does it actually mean?

Answering that requires addressing two questions. First, how low, in fact, is this figure?

The short answer: really low. Five decades ago, in the 1950s, union density was three times higher, at 35 percent. As recently as 1980, one-quarter of workers belonged to a union. So, over a half-century, labor’s density fell from one in three to one in four, then to one in eight. The decline in union membership has gone from gradual to precipitous.

Things are no better when viewed in an international context. The few European countries that have as low a density as their American counterparts make up for it in other ways. The labor movement of France, for example, is intensely political and divided into competing union federations that span the ideological gamut, including socialist and communist. Their considerable strength flows from their propensity to engage in quasi-guerrilla actions, including nationwide strikes and militant protests. If a French union can shut down the country’s rail system by direct action, the size of its membership doesn’t really matter.

Meanwhile, those European labor movements — German, Scandinavian — more comparable to ours because they are centrist, membership-focused and accept the existing socioeconomic system, derive power by representing a high percentage of workers.

Thus, in some ways, American labor is the odd man out. That leads to the second question: Why is this so, and what does it mean?

Conventional wisdom contends it’s because labor is a dinosaur. If the very workers whom unions are supposed to serve and protect don’t care about labor anymore, why should anyone else?

That sounds logical, but it misses what’s really happening. The average autoworker in Detroit or steelworker in Pittsburgh hasn’t suddenly decided to opt out of the United Auto Workers or United Steelworkers. They’re not leaving the union; their jobs are leaving the country.

For more than a decade, we’ve been witnessing the virtual deindustrialization of America for various reasons, including poorly negotiated trade deals as well as tax policies that encourage the outsourcing of work. Those departing manufacturing jobs are disproportionately union jobs.

The other major factor driving down unionization levels has been a growing employer focus on resisting the formation of unions in their workplaces. Without debating the merits of his actions, it’s clear that Ronald Reagan’s breaking of the air-traffic controllers union early in his presidency sent a clear message to American employers: Forget the old partnerships and traditions; it is open season on workers and their unions.

That, combined with a labyrinthine set of labor laws in this country, has emboldened employers to shift from fighting unions to trying to prevent their formation in the first place — hence the burgeoning multibillion-dollar ‘union avoidance’ industry.

Some employers skirt the law, for instance indicating indirectly to workers that the plant might relocate in Mexico if they vote in a union. Others illegally intimidate or fire union advocates, calculating that the risk of being caught, and the light penalties if they are, justify the risk. Doubt that? Even President George W. Bush’s conservative National Labor Relations Board annually awarded back pay and other remedies to about 30,000 workers found to have been fired or disciplined improperly, often for trying to exercise their right to form a union. Also consider the chilling effect this has, especially in this economy, on other workers.

And so, if we are to understand the low union numbers in this country, the role of mounting employer resistance shouldn’t be overlooked. As Theodore St. Antoine, a veteran law professor, former law school dean and past president of the National Academy of Arbitrators, told me, the “intensity of opposition to unionization which is exhibited by American employers has no parallel in the Western industrial world.”

Philip Dine, author of “State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence,” is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.

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