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What Happened To Organized Labor?

June 2024
17min read

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.

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.

Yet even then there were problems. Nearly two-thirds of all employees still weren’t union members in 1945. Organized labor had become dependent on the government and the Democratic party, both of which were on the defensive by the postwar years. Most serious of all, the unions’ success generated a powerful backlash, as more and more nonmembers became alarmed at organized labor’s strength, especially during the dramatic postwar strike wave, which lasted through 1946 and idled more than a million workers. Public revulsion against “irresponsible” and “greedy” unions, epitomized by the United Mine Workers (UMW) —whose president, John L. Lewis, openly expressed his contempt for President Truman’s mediation efforts—contributed to Republican victories in 1946 and ensured that a new, anti-union Congress would revive pre-war efforts to curb the organizations’ powers.

The result was the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which supposedly “balanced” the powers of labor and management by subjecting unions to a variety of new restrictions. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) would continue to regulate industrial relations, but in a less labor-friendly manner; complete deregulation was avoided because it wouldn’t have dealt with the problem of disruptive strikes and because employers had discovered that regulation could work in their favor. Through legal maneuvers they had already been able to thwart the pro-union character of the law; with a “neutral” board they would fare even better.

In the late 1940s and the 1950s, the NLRB became demonstrably less helpful to the labor movement. President Truman’s appointees, moderately pro-labor, tried to satisfy both sides but only encouraged employers to intensify their attacks. Elsenhower’s appointees, who dominated the board by 1954, made no secret of wanting to change its direction. By 1955 the board had, among other things, implemented more stringent restrictions on union boycotts and excluded from their jurisdiction many small businesses, including most retail firms. The Eisenhower board openly sought to limit regulation and accommodate employer interests, and it succeeded in making life tougher for union leaders, the future less certain for prospective union members, and the NLRB a political football.

As the legal and regulatory environment for unions cooled during the 1950s, their popular image also suffered, amid a series of highly publicized scandals involving the Teamsters and other organizations with long records of unsavory activity. The U.S. Senate’s McClellan investigation of union corruption, in 1957–58, was particularly harmful. A Gallup poll in February 1957, on the eve of the McClellan hearings, reported that 76 percent of Americans approved of unions. In September, after dramatic revelations about Teamster affairs, only 64 percent approved, and labor’s approval rating never again approached that previous level.

There was no evidence that union misbehavior had become more prevalent after World War II, but labor’s very success had made corruption a more potent issue. Union treasuries were richer, and the rise of insurance and pension funds created new opportunities for abuse. Smaller corrupt organizations, such as the International Longshoremen’s Association, attracted only fleeting interest, but the mighty Teamsters, the largest American union, was another matter. If the biggest could be subverted by criminals, was any union secure?

The McClellan hearings initially focused on the Teamsters’ president, Dave Beck, whose clumsy looting of the organization’s treasury and boorish behavior made him a convenient target; he subsequently resigned in disgrace. The senators then discovered an even more attractive antagonist in Beck’s successor, James Hoffa. Revelations of Hoffa’s violent behavior and underworld ties captured headlines; he boasted, “I do to others what they do to me, only worse.” Though the hearings proved to be only the first act in a prolonged legal contest between Hoffa and the government, the sordid essentials were well known by 1958. The Teamsters were expelled from the AFL-CIO, but this did little to repair the damage to the labor movement.

In the end Beck and Hoffa went to jail, and the government grew more sensitive to union corruption. In 1959 Congress passed the Landrum-Griffin Act, which regulated union management and tightened Taft-Hartley restrictions on union activities. More damaging in the long term, employers began tarring all organizers with the brush of Beck and Hoffa. Prospective members began to worry about being robbed and bullied. The effect was probably strongest in the South and West, where the labor movement had only a modest base, and in the fast-growing service industries, where organization still was a novelty.

Employers had emerged from World War II with renewed self-confidence and quickly launched a campaign to reverse the unions’ gains. The labor expert Neil Chamberlain, a professor of economics at Yale University, noted in 1948 that they were prepared to “fight along a wide front.” They avoided outright confrontation while striving to restrict unions to their postwar strongholds, a goal that proved surprisingly attainable.

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.

The big industrial unions faced the most serious challenges. By the 1950s the United Steelworkers had become a lethargic giant. The United Auto Workers (UAW) supported a variety of social causes and insistently followed the automakers to the South, yet it too failed to extend its reach. The major exception to this pattern—but not a positive one—was the United Mine Workers; it entered a near-fatal downward spiral in the 1950s. The coal industry declined after World War II as consumption dwindled and competition intensified. The UMW president John L. Lewis negotiated a series of innovative contracts in the late 1940s, but then in 1950 he entered into a covert partnership with George Love, the leading employer. In return for approving draconian layoffs and, in the historian Curtis Seltzer’s words, becoming “the Bituminous Coal Operators Association’s thug, doing its dirty work in the name of his members,” he preserved the jobs of a relative handful of highly paid loyalists. Unlike other union leaders, Lewis made no effort even to defend the status quo.

The merger in 1954–55 of the two great aggregations of unions, the old AFL, dominated by the organizations of skilled, relatively autonomous workers, and the newer CIO, representing the ranks of less skilled factory and industrial laborers, did little to resolve these problems. Beset by poor leadership and chaotic organization, the CIO had faced mounting difficulties after World War II. Apart from the Steel and Auto Workers, its affiliated unions were mostly small and poor; many were not even self-supporting. Some AFL officials urged their president, George Meany, to let the CIO collapse. He demurred: “If the CIO disintegrates, it’s going to be bad for labor.” A formal merger would be less disruptive. Given this background, it is not surprising that the merger failed to stimulate a new era of union activism.

Employers in the South and West mobilized to prevent the spread of collective bargaining, and cost-conscious managers began to relocate there.

Clearly, the labor movement had encountered a formidable list of problems by 1970. Yet its worst disasters lay ahead. Organized labor was still larger and stronger than at any time before World War II, and total membership was at record levels, though the proportion of unionized workers was not. In the 1970s all the problems of the 1950s and 1960s would become more severe, making that decade a time of unprecedented crisis.

The decade from 1973 to 1982 was devastating for union and nonunion workers alike. The energy crises of 1973–74 and 1979–80 and the severe recessions that followed were only the most obvious signs of trouble. Rising energy costs spurred wide-ranging attacks on inflation, including industry deregulation that undermined the intricate business-labor partnerships that had characterized the transportation, energy, and communications fields since the 1930s. The dislocations of the 1970s also exposed problems that had been germinating during the easy prosperity of the postwar era. The severe recession of the early 1980s eliminated more than two million union jobs, far more than any previous postwar recession. When the economy finally recovered, in the mid-1980s, technological innovation accelerated and employment grew rapidly, but American unions did not revive; indeed, in most industries organization continued to decline.

Most of the unions’ losses were the result of economic developments largely unrelated to industrial relations. The dramatic decline of the steel, auto, and auto-parts industries in the 1970s devastated the Steelworkers, Auto Workers, Rubber Workers, and others. The fate of the tire industry was typical.

American tire companies had been slow to embrace the radial tire, which, among other things, increased fuel efficiency. The energy crisis of 1973–74 transformed the tire market, creating opportunities for Michelin and other foreign companies that specialized in radiais. Facing catastrophic losses, the American manufacturers had little choice but to shift to radial production. They did have a choice, however, about where they would make the new tires. They could reorganize their Northern plants, install new machinery, and retrain veteran workers, or they could expand their Southern operations, some of which were nonunion, and hire new workers. In 1976, contract negotiations stalled over the union’s demand for automatic cost-of-living adjustments. The result was a bitter 141-day nationwide strike that tipped the balance in favor of the new Southern factories. The second energy crisis and the recession of the early 1980s sealed the Northern plants’ fate. By 1986 the tire companies had closed thirty-two plants, including their oldest and largest factories, and eliminated thousands of union jobs.

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.

In many professions dismissal from one’s job is tantamount to dismissal from the profession, but public-sector workers typically have protection against arbitrary discharge, and the courts increasingly have extended similar rights to private-sector workers. The emergence of professional athletes’ unions, the single most successful organizing story of the post-World War II era, is a commentary on the relationship between such threats and worker behavior. Until the middle of the twentieth century, team owners wholly controlled the (usually brief) careers of their players. They could trade them or fire them without explanation or appeal.

By 1976 the four major professional sports had collective-bargaining agreements. The Major League Baseball Players Association, spurred by its more prominent and secure members, was the catalyst for change. In 1966 it hired an aggressive executive director and became a de facto union. The impact was apparent almost immediately. A formal collective-bargaining contract was signed in 1968, and amid much turmoil, including a strike in 1972 and a lockout in 1976, the players won more generous pensions, higher minimum salaries, free agency, and salary arbitration, which benefited the stars. As soon as a handful of star players had demonstrated their willingness to defy the owners, the other players had readily joined them.

For most service-sector workers the prospect of reprisals remains a serious threat. Many employers strongly oppose collective bargaining, especially at fast-growing companies like Wal-Mart and MCI, which have succeeded by undercutting competitors’ prices. But two major political phenomena have favored service workers. The first is the effect of the antiestablishment protests of the 1960s and early 1970s in making people aware of the potential of mass action. The second is the passage of laws that have formally lessened the resistance of government employers to union activity.

The civil rights movement had a direct impact on African-American workers and an indirect influence on others just when the Teamster scandals and other troubles were weakening the appeal of organization for most rank-and-file workers. A prime example was the growth of Local 1199 of the Retail Drug Employees Union, in New York. After many years of indifferent success representing pharmacy employees, it began in the late 1950s to organize local hospital workers, especially low-wage, low-skill employees. Its organizers were able to draw on the example of the civil rights movement to build an aggressive constituency. As one leader explained, “This is more than just another union, this is part of the freedom struggle.” The local’s first hospital contract came in late 1958, its first large strike in mid-1959. What began as a rebellion of dissatisfied workers comparing themselves to victims of racial segregation became a broader, more conventional organizing campaign, and by 1970 the local’s members included three-quarters of all of New York City’s hospital employees.

The rise of professional athletes’ unions is the most successful organizing story since World War II, but events have also encouraged service workers.

New York’s municipal-employees unions followed a similar path. District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees start- ed as a union of park laborers, expanded rapidly in the 1960s, in part by identifying with the civil rights movement, and became a major force in New York local government. The American Federation of Teachers also had impressive successes in New York that then emboldened teachers in suburban and small-city systems. They in turn became more restive and critical of the narrow focus of the National Education Association, and by the late 1960s they had forced NEA leaders to embrace collective bargaining. Public school teaching, and to a lesser degree public college teaching, were transformed as dramatically as was inner-city public-service employment.

Did the passage of laws guaranteeing public employees the right to organize cause union activism or result from it? The question has been much debated, and the answer is probably both. Government employees saw themselves as victims of neglect and indifference, and, like other aggrieved groups, they relied on both mass action and political pressure to agitate for change. A 1962 executive order by President Kennedy encouraged organization among federal employees, and five states adopted public-employee bargaining laws in the 1960s; nineteen, including virtually all the highly urbanized states, would do so in the seventies. These laws marked the beginning of a period when collective bargaining was extended to most police officers and firefighters as well.

Unions have achieved additional gains among public employees in the 1990s—and have suffered losses in other industries, with aggregate membership continuing to fall. As a result the distinction between private and public employment has become more marked. Does the labor movement have a future in the private sector? There are a number of positive signs that it does. The growing number of jobs with shop-floor autonomy, the example of public employees, and the ongoing strength of the economy all bode well for it. The election of John Sweeney and other activists to top positions in the AFL-CIO is another promising development. Finally, several recent strike victories have encouraged union activists. In 1994 the United Rubber Workers struck Bridgestone/Firestone over the company’s refusal to follow the industry bargaining pattern. After a year the URW was in disarray, but then it merged with the larger Steelworkers, made a dramatic comeback, and negotiated a favorable contract in late 1996. The Teamsters’ short, highly successful strike against United Parcel Service in the fall of 1997 similarly showed the residual power of organized labor.

It would be foolish to predict the timing or magnitude of the next real union revival, but it would be even more dangerous to suggest that there will be none or that the labor movement will no longer play a significant role in American society. The experiences of the last century suggest, on the contrary, that twenty-first-century union membership will rise and fall with changes in economic and political conditions, that autonomous (probably service) workers will make up its core, that employers will oppose unions but deal with them when it is mutually advantageous to do so, and that the economic environment will largely define the possibilities at any given time. Unions are here to stay—and to struggle.

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