As low-wage, precarious work proliferates and economic inequality grows, working people in the United States need collective bargaining as much as ever. But precious few have access to it: By 2014, union membership had dwindled to 11.1 percent of the U.S. labor force, and to only 6.6 percent in the private sector. Strikes have also declined precipitously. This is not because workers have lost interest in labor organizing: survey after survey suggests that a large majority of them would vote for a union in their workplace, given the opportunity. Sadly, few get that opportunity these days, and when they do, employers typically go to great lengths to intimidate them into voting no.
Ruth Milkman is a distinguished professor of sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center and research director of CUNY's Murphy Labor Institute.
Contrary to popular belief, de-unionization is not primarily due to globalization or new technology: Successful attacks on organized labor have affected many place-bound low-tech industries, like construction or hospitality, nearly as much as manufacturing. The primary driver of labor’s decline is the growing power of corporate employers who are fiercely determined to weaken unions where they already exist and to prevent their emergence elsewhere. That determination is reinforced by the ideology of market fundamentalism, for which both unionism itself and governmental protection of the right to organize are anathema.
Many factors determine unionization rates. All else being equal, if employment declines in a non-union (or weakly unionized) sector, unionization levels will fall. Conversely, if employment expands in a sector where unionism is absent or weak, they will rise. Actively recruiting new members is the main way unions themselves can raise membership. But since labor market churning is an inherent feature of capitalist economies, with new jobs constantly being created and old ones being destroyed, simply maintaining a stable unionization rate requires a great deal of new organizing; increasing the rate requires even more extensive effort. In the contemporary U.S., where unionization is now concentrated largely in legacy industries that are no longer growing, de-unionization is inevitable unless labor organizers can recruit on a massive scale. But today most unions are desperately defending the members they still have, rather than organizing new ones.
And such organizing has become increasingly difficult over the past four decades. Intransigent opposition to unionism has become standard business practice. In the private sector, an army of labor consultants (also known as union busters) systematically assists companies in squashing any budding organizing campaigns. Some of the standard anti-union tactics they recommend are perfectly legal, but many employers don’t take any chances: firing workers for union organizing—illegal under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act—is five times as common today as it was in the 1950s. It’s no coincidence that back then the share of private sector workers who were union members was five times the current level.
Until recently, systematic anti-union attacks were concentrated in the private sector. But thanks to the energetic efforts of the American Legislative Exchange Council, backed by the Koch brothers and other conservative interests, the public sector has moved to center stage in the war on unionism. ALEC drafted model legislation to limit or eliminate public-sector collective bargaining rights, various versions of which have become law in states that once were union strongholds. The iconic case is Wisconsin, which in 1959 had been the first state to pass legislation authorizing public-sector collective bargaining. In 2011 that law was essentially decapitated under the leadership of Governor Scott Walker. Although the proposal to roll back public-sector union rights precipitated mass protests in Madison, the state capital, it nevertheless did become law; soon after a union-led effort to recall Walker from office failed. Walker went on to lead a successful effort to pass a right-to-work law in Wisconsin in 2015, eliminating the union shop in the private sector. And Wisconsin is not alone; in several other states where Republicans have won political control of the legislature and the governor’s office, similar developments have unfolded, albeit with less fanfare.
This matters not only for the dwindling number of workers who are still union members, but also for the future of the nation. Not only does the rapid decline of unionism mean that fewer and fewer workers have the right to voice their concerns on the job without fear of employer retaliation, but the weakening of the labor movement affects the overall character of American democracy. As inequality between the haves and haves-not widens, organized labor is the one surviving institution that systematically pushes in the other direction.
Faced with a more hostile political and economic environment than the nation has seen since the early 1930s, the labor movement has been building alliances with other progressive forces, from the immigrant rights movement to Occupy Wall Street, from the Black Lives Matter movement to environmentalism. And some unions are now experimenting with new modes of organizing, best exemplified by the Service Employees International Union-backed fast food workers Fight for 15 campaign that has been building momentum since 2012 and has helped spark several successful state and local efforts to raise the minimum wage to $15. Whether these initiatives can help start a larger union revival is far from clear, but it’s in the interest of anyone concerned about the future of democracy and surging inequality to support them.
For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.