What Happened To Organized Labor?

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On October 24, 1995, in the thick of a bitter contest for the presidency of the AFL-CIO, John J. Sweeney, leader of the dissident forces, rose to address the union’s convention. If the delegates were “tired of being treated like so much road kill on the highway of American life,” he said, they must reject the Status quo and vote for him. He promised more activism and more organizing. Apparently most delegates needed little persuasion. They elected him president by a substantial margin. Stephen Yokich, president of the United Auto Workers, told reporters that for “the first time in twenty years, there’s excitement.” Sweeney’s election was a response to one of the most perplexing developments of recent decades, the continuing decline of organized labor in the United States. From a position of unprecedented strength after World War II, unions have slowly but steadily lost ground. From one-third of nonfarm workers in the 1950s, their ranks fell to only one-sixth in the 1990s. Their economic and political influence also plummeted.

Why? Most efforts to explain labor’s apparent debacle have blamed other contemporary trends: the growing number of women and African-American workers; the rise of the service sector and the decline in blue-collar jobs; the growth of government workplace regulations; the increase in global business competition. But these reasons raise as many questions as they answer. Some of them are simply wrong. Women and minorities, for example, have proved more union-friendly than white men, and white-collar unions have flourished while blue-collar ones have languished. There are better, fuller explanations.

The unions’ successes in the 1930s and during World War II generated a powerful public backlash. The result was the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947.

To begin with, influences that drove the rise and fall of organized labor before World War II have continued to work. The steady growth of labor between the mid-1950s and the mid-1950s created a misleading image of union stability that made labor’s declines seem apocalyptic. Over the longer term, dramatic membership fluctuations have been the rule rather than the exception. Union membership doubled between 1915 and 1920, fell by nearly a third between 1920 and 1922, and almost tripled between 1933 and 1937. To preWorld War II observers, these fluctuations were part of the natural ebb and flow of economic life.

Three basic realities influenced this pattern, and they all remain important today. First, the workers most likely to join unions were those with substantial workplace power and autonomy, people who could set their own pace, allocate their time, and decide which tools or machines to use. In the nineteenth century, miners, who worked in isolation and with only minimal supervision, were the backbone of the labor movement. At the turn of the century, skilled construction workers, also largely autonomous, formed powerful organizations. Later, skilled industrial workers, such as molders, printers, potters, and locomotive engineers, created influential unions. Today professional athletes and airline pilots have especially powerful unions.

Second, union success has always depended on employers’ acquiescence. Though most employers oppose unions, their resolve is often weakened by a scarcity of employees, the opportunity for immediate profit, government restrictions, or other considerations. Workers are more likely to join unions and stay in them when their employers don’t make opposition a top priority.

Finally, the state of the economy has always been important. Inflation has typically stimulated organization as workers struggle to keep pace with rising living costs. Increased government spending and regulation of the economy have done likewise. On the other hand, unemployment, by increasing the competition for jobs, has usually had the opposite effect.

Looking at the post-World War II era with these ongoing factors in mind, the recent troubles of unions become less surprising and their futures less bleak.

In the decade from 1935 to 1945, union membership skyrocketed, quadrupling to more than ten million, or a third of the nonfarm labor force. New Deal legislation discouraged employer opposition, and wartime labor shortages gave workers additional leverage. In this climate even unions of auto assemblyline workers and other factory operatives who had little or no workplace autonomy expanded, and the breakaway Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), a federation of such industrial unions, emerged and thrived.