Welcome to State of the Unions Week, where we look at the past, present, and future of organized labor in America.
The second half of the 20th century brought big, bold changes to the economic status quo in countries all over the world. Globalization and the invention of new technologies meant that companies in developed nations could produce goods for much less money in far-away factories or at home with the help of sophisticated machinery.
These forces undoubtedly explain part of the decline in union density and influence in the United States; fewer workers employed in the union-dominated manufacturing sector meant fewer union workers. But this decline has not been replicated to the same extent in many European countries. In Iceland, for example, 92 percent of workers are still members of a union, according to the most recent edition of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Economic Outlook, an annual publication reviewing economic conditions and trends in developed countries. In the Scandinavian countries—Sweden, Denmark, and Finland—union density hovers around 65 percent.
Even in those European countries where union membership is lower, a much higher percentage of workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements. While union membership is only around 10 percent in France (much lower than the OECD average), almost 100 percent of workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements. In most of Europe, collective bargaining agreements are sector or industry-wide, covering vast groups of workers who aren't union members.
The diverging experiences of European and American unions raises a puzzling question: Why has the decline of American unions been so much more dramatic and precipitous than that of their European counterparts, given that both sets of countries have faced a similar set of economic challenges?
Often, when academics discuss the decline of unions in America, they point to the 1970s, a decade of sharp declines in union density, as the turning point.
Joseph McCartin, the executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University, has spent much of his career studying the history of organized labor in the U.S. McCartin believes that, to truly understand the roots of the decline of unions in America, you have to go back farther, to the post-World War II years.
That era brought two notable failures for unions: the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act and the failure of a coordinated campaign to unionize the South.
The passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 placed significant restrictions on unions, most of which still exist. It prohibited secondary boycotts and "sympathy" boycotts and opened the door to the right-to-work laws—which prohibit employers from hiring only union employees—that now exist in 27 states around the country. The legislation also required that union leaders sign affidavits swearing they weren't Communist sympathizers; refusal to sign meant they would lose many of the protections guaranteed by the Wagner Act, the landmark 1935 labor law that established the National Labor Relations Board and guaranteed workers the right to organize.
The Taft-Hartley Act came at a particularly inopportune time. Labor unions were in the middle of "Operation Dixie," a campaign to organize the non-unionized textile industry in the South. Anti-union business leaders in the region used the accusation that the leadership of some of the industrial unions were Communists, or Communist-leaning, to whip up opposition to Operation Dixie. Union foes also relied on another particularly powerful bogeyman—desegregation—to increase opposition to the industrial unions among white workers in the Jim Crow South. In one publication, typical of the time, distributed by the Southern States Industrial Council, one article asked "Shall We Be Ruled by Whites or Blacks?" and others alluded to the creeping threat of communism to traditional values.
In the face of this opposition, Operation Dixie ultimately failed—the Southern textile industry remained un-unionized.
"If there's any one moment that set the stage for later developments, I think it was that failure in the post-war years to continue the union growth that happened in the '30s and during the war," McCartin says. "Once there became a region of the country that wasn't unionized, it became a lot harder. When you compare us to France or Germany, there wasn't really a region of one of those countries where unions were just totally frozen out. The union movement was geographically hemmed in in this country—that turned out to be really, really costly."
Against this backdrop of vulnerability, the larger economic forces of the 1970s and '80s were devastating. The high inflation of the 1970s prompted Chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker to pursue a course of aggressive interest rate increases that increased the value of the dollar and decreased U.S. exports, decimating the manufacturing sector. Unemployment skyrocketed, reaching 10.8 percent in 1982. Layoffs were common—21.2 percent of blue-collar workers experienced an involuntary job loss between 1981 and 1983.
In the face of such instability, companies found that workers in the manufacturing sector were both more willing to accept lower wages than they might have previously been, and more receptive to warnings that unionization campaigns could jeopardize their job security.
Meanwhile, popular sentiment in the country around economic policy was shifting. In the face of wage stagnation, Americans started to demand lower taxes, and resentment for public-sector workers grew. Politicians of both parties threw their support behind deregulation and free market reforms, arguing that only the forces of the free market could end stagflation and unleash the kind of innovation needed to improve living standards for all.
There have, over the years, been legislative efforts to restore unions to a measure of their former glory.
In 1965, labor groups mounted an effort to repeal the section of the Taft-Hartley Act that allowed state-level right-to-work laws, with the support of President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was successfully filibustered in the Senate. In 1978, another effort to reform labor law and institutions was also successfully filibustered. Likewise, a 1994 effort to pass legislation blocking employers from hiring permanent replacements for striking workers also died in the Senate. In an article in The American Prospect published in 2010, Harold Myerson argued that even President Barack Obama (widely viewed as the most labor-friendly president in years) abandoned the labor movement by not fighting hard enough for the Employee Free Choice Act in 2009, which would have made it easier for workers to form unions and increased fines on employers who violate labor law.
These failures highlight another difference between European and American unions. In many of the Western European countries where unions have maintained their strength, the relationship between organized labor and political parties takes two forms: unions either enjoy broad-based support from politicians across the political spectrum, or they have an extremely close relationship with one political party that consistently advances their priorities.
Consider, for example, the experience of Germany as compared to that of the U.S., where Republicans have been fiercely opposed to unions since the '70s.
"In Germany, the [German Trade Union Confederation, a trade union, also known as] DGB is non-partisan, their leaders talk with [Chancellor Angela] Merkel, they are not seen as a political enemy of the conservative party," says Richard Freeman, an economics professor at Harvard University who has studied unions for decades. "At one point, Republicans were not anti-union, but now the Republican Party sees unions as political enemies. And that means that whenever the Republicans get in power, they do everything possible to weaken the unions."
Nor does organized labor in the U.S. have the type of tight relationship with the Democratic Party that labor unions in other countries (e.g. Sweden) enjoy with certain political parties. Democrats have, after all, proven themselves to be unreliable allies. In the 1970s, Democratic mayors won praise for various "strike-breaking" initiatives with respect to municipal initiatives, and the party has also supported the deregulation or privatization of previously heavily unionized industries like the sanitation, print, and telecommunications industries.
"In the U.S., there was never a durable labor party, and it does matter," McCartin says. "The Democratic Party became labor's more congenial ally, but it was never really all in. When priorities had to be set, the Democratic Party's willingness to prioritize labor was never quite there. Historically, that happened repeatedly. That made it hard for unions to advance a public policy agenda."
But as much as all of these factors explain some of the precipitous decline of unions in this country, many of the experts I interviewed for this article also pointed to something bone-deep in the American psyche, dating all the way back to the country's founding, that has simply made the country less fertile ground for labor unions.
Even simple geography played a role in shaping a different kind of corporate culture in America. America is simply much bigger than many European countries, which employers worried made it harder to construct the kind of stable, mutually beneficial relationships between labor and capital that are common elsewhere. "The market was big, and the competitive forces were stronger here than anywhere else—that shaped business culture," McCartin says.
Against this backdrop of a vast country filled with "Wild West" markets untethered from a national bureaucracy, business in America also evolved in an environment in which the government was never seen as a partner, as it is in many European countries. Janice Fine, a professor at Rutgers who studies unions and alternative labor organizations, points out that, in Europe, the government played a valuable role in the early development of some industries and infrastructure, a history that lessened corporate hostility to regulation, such as those protecting workers' rights.
"In a lot of those countries, there isn't the same hostility to regulation because there's the sense that the state is a partner," Fine says. "But here, for a long time, business just was kind of free to do its own thing, and so it views regulation, when it does come, as holding it back."