- 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
Clearly, the labor movement faced formidable problems by 1970. Yet its worst disasters still lay ahead, in the devastating decade from 1973 to 1982.
Deregulation had similar effects on unions in transportation and communications. The deregulation of the airline, railroad, and trucking industries between 1977 and 1980 created new cost pressures in an already difficult period. Many well-established companies merged or went out of business; nonunion firms proliferated. In the airline industry employees whose jobs were industry-specific, such as pilots and flight attendants, saw their wages plummet by as much as two-thirds. In trucking, unionized, highcost companies that provided generic services suffered the greatest losses, and nonunion, low-wage firms like J. B. Hunt captured most of the business. Average drivers’ wages fell by more than a quarter in the 1980s, and the Teamsters lost more than 250,000 members.
The breakup of AT&T, in 1983–84, had a similar impact on telephone workers. More than three hundred thousand AT&T employees had lost their jobs by 1994, and AT&T went from 67 percent to 46 percent organized. New competitors, such as MCI and Sprint, were aggressively anti-union.
Labor had lost friends in government too. In 1977 the AFL-CIO promoted a bill to streamline NLRB procedures and encourage organization. It passed the House of Representatives overwhelmingly, but when the Senate considered it, business interests launched an all-out campaign, and the bill failed. Labor was losing its influence on Capitol Hill because there were no longer enough highly unionized states to ensure support for such a bill.
The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, over strong union opposition, was a logical sequel to that battle. Reagan was the first President since the 1920s to distance himself publicly from the labor movement. His discharge of the striking air-traffic controllers in 1981 was a shock to all unions, but his most important initiative was a largely successful effort to transform the NLRB into a pro-employer agency. In 1983 he named Donald Dotson, an attorney with close ties to anti-union groups, as board chairman, and Dotson reversed many NLRB policies and turned representation elections into no-holds-barred contests for employee loyalty. By the late 1980s the NLRB was effectively discouraging organization, a complete turnaround from the federal government’s role in the 1930s and early 1940s.
Employers, including some who had had collective-bargaining contracts for decades, began to weigh the possibilities of simply eliminating unions from their older plants. The result was a series of bitter strikes, the best known of which were at Phelps-Dodge in southern Arizona in 1983-84, Hormel in Austin, Minnesota, in 1985-86, and Caterpillar in several Midwestern communities in 1991-95. Each of these companies faced severe competitive pressures. When their unions rejected demands for concessions and struck, they hired replacement workers and tried to create nonunion environments. Despite enormous costs, they were victorious. Union members lost their jobs, crossed the picket lines, or returned as individuals after the strike ended. Even the most powerful unions were vulnerable.
The combined effects of deregulation, industrial decentralization, government hostility, and employer militancy created a strongly anti-union environment. A defensive union establishment, unwilling to devote resources to organizing, exacerbated these problems. Yet there was an intriguing exception to this pattern. Government employees, who had been an insignificant factor in the labor movement in the 1930s and 1940s, became a large and growing force in the labor movement of the 1980s and 1990s. Their activism, so unlike the behavior of private-sector employees, was the most encouraging indicator for American labor in the 1990s.
After 1960 the burgeoning service industries accounted for most union membership gains, and government employees dominated white-collar unionism. Their growing prominence—by the 1990s the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees were larger than the Teamsters, nearly twice as large as the UAW, and more than three times as large as the Carpenters—raised fundamental questions about the future of the labor movement. Were miners and factory workers giving way to police officers, teachers, and janitors? Or did the emergence of these groups signal a rebirth of interest in unions?
Like the miners and railroad workers of an earlier day, service workers tend to have substantial workplace autonomy. The more highly skilled also often have professional associations that perform economic functions, such as the regulation of entry to the profession, that can easily resemble traditional union functions. The National Education Association transformed itself over a decade from a sleepy professional organization into the nation’s largest union.