- Historic Sites
What Happened To Organized Labor?
FIFTY YEARS AGO unions seemed invincible, but they’ve been losing battles and members ever since. The reasons their fortunes fell suggest that they’re sure to rise again.
July/August 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 4
Employers in the South and West mobilized to prevent the spread of collective bargaining there and turned back the CIO’s heralded Operation Dixie, an attempt to enlist Southern industrial workers. At the same time, business lobbyists in Southern and Western states successfully agitated for “right-to-work” laws outlawing compulsory union membership; these laws became a powerful way to discourage organizers. Florida and Arkansas adopted right-to-work statutes in 1944, and within a decade nineteen other states, mostly in the South and West, had passed similar bills.
For a few years right-to-work captured the imaginations of Northern employers as well. In Indiana, business organizations boasted that they “used every technique of communication available” when they pushed through a law in 1957. “We don’t know what hit us,” responded an Indiana union official. Employers in Ohio and California tried to repeat that success, but their campaigns galvanized union leaders and led to overwhelming defeats for right-to-work and the Republican politicians identified with it. The net effect, however, was just to reinforce the South’s competitive edge in the interstate competition for business. Meanwhile, employers, buoyed by the limited success of right-to-work as an anti-union weapon, started taking on the NLRB itself, contesting its procedures and appealing its rulings. They also hired consultants to help them defeat unions in representation elections and threatened layoffs and plant closings to create a climate of intimidation. Though many of their tactics were illegal, the penalties, if any, were so meager that they had little deterrent effect. Union victories in representation elections declined from more than 80 percent in the 1940s to less than 50 percent in the 1970s.
Small and medium-sized firms were the most likely to resort to aggressive union avoidance measures; big businesses favored subtler means. High wages, generous benefits, restraints on supervisors’ powers, surveys of worker attitudes, and personal contacts proved highly effective. Frederick Crawford of Thompson Products, a notoriously anti-union firm that pioneered many of these techniques, liked to say that with his workers, “we were all friends.”
Meanwhile, technological innovation and increasing foreign competition, particularly after the mid-1960s, were forcing managers to become more cost-conscious. To many, the easiest way to reduce costs was to relocate to places where unions didn’t exist. This process occurred over decades, and for a long time it attracted little attention because at first it rarely involved factory closings. Plant managers and union leaders continued to confront each other, resolve grievances, and negotiate contracts as before, but all the while employers were opening new plants in semirural areas in the South and West. Union organizers usually found the new employees there thankful for their jobs and hostile to organization, and the companies seldom had any need to oppose union representation directly. So the proportion of a firm’s production employees who were union members fell, and those who remained were increasingly isolated in older plants that, because of their high costs, received little attention or investment. By 1970 organized employees in many industries were precariously exposed.
At the same time, the internal management of companies was changing in ways that had anti-union implications. The expansion of technical and professional jobs and government regulation let personnel departments devote their attention to “human resources” instead of collective bargaining. Human resources managers, a new breed, typically viewed collective bargaining as a historical artifact. They championed work reorganization to involve employees in shop-floor decision making. Since many union leaders opposed changes that were likely to reduce their influence, such new techniques were usually first introduced in nonunion plants. In the 1960s and 1970s, many corporations went a step further, increasing the authority of line managers at the expense of all staff managers, including both industrial-relations and human-resources managers.
How did the unions respond to all these changes? Some union officials pretended that nothing had happened; a larger number were political pragmatists who devoted their energies to current members. Without an overt threat they were reluctant to divert scarce resources to risky organizing campaigns. Organizing expenditures fell steadily between the 1950s and the 1980s, as did the number of NLRB elections.