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Labor’s laboring effort

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | September 9, 2010

The past Labor Day weekend stimulated thoughts of – besides cookouts and the end of summer – the fate of labor in America.

Historians and sociologists have tried to figure out for many years now why union membership in the United States is so low – now about one-eighth of the employed – compared to elsewhere in the world and why it has dropped so far – down from about one-third in 1955. The answers seem to lie in economics, globalization, and politics. And lurking behind the politics may be something about Americanism itself that goes back much further than 1955.

Low Density

The United States’ rate of “union density,” the proportion of employed workers who belong to unions, now about 12%, is far below of that of most western European nations (with the interesting exception of France) which range from about 20% to about 60%. While union membership rates have been declining there as well, the drop-off is not nearly as steep as here.

ILGWU union logo

My parents' union.

This year has not been particularly good for labor with unemployment so high. The last few decades have not been particularly good with most Americans’ wages having stagnated since about 1970. And the last half-century has not been particularly good for the labor movement, with membership declining since about 1960.

As the graph below shows, unionization leaped up during the Depression, New Deal Era, and early post-war period. Since then, it has dropped steadily (source: see note 1). Recent studies point to a few key explanations for the precipitous drop in the last half-century. One, clearly, is the decline in manufacturing, the disappearance of the blue-collar industrial jobs that once spurred demand for unions and then later financially sustained the big unions. Motown – the Detroit of the 1950s and ’60s – is the classic bygone example. Another factor is globalization – both U.S. manufacturers (and now service providers, too) moving their investments to low-wage nations and workers from low-wage nations moving into the U.S. economy. Although unions have had a few successes organizing a few immigrant workers, for various reasons the immigrants are a hard-to-unionize work force.

chart showing union density by year, 1880-2000

Union density

Political constraints on unions have also become much more inhibiting over recent decades. Starting with the end of the New Deal and intensifying with the Reagan Administration in 1981, the rules on organizing and the regulatory oversight of the workplace have made it harder to establish and sustain unions. Also, decentralization in the United States (see here) allows states to set many labor laws. The states with anti-union laws make it especially hard to unionize and, by attracting business, undermine unionization in other states.

In Europe, union membership is often a routine, required part of getting a job and unions have official or semi-official roles (along with associations of employers) in national government – for example, negotiating nationwide pay scales or, in a few places, dispensing unemployment insurance and other benefits to workers. Such a central role for unions would be hard to imagine in the United States. How come?

Why Weak Labor?

This question has perplexed scholars for over a century. Commonly called the “Why No Socialism in America?” question, it is really about why workers in America failed to develop a sustained and broad labor movement, a political party rooted in that movement, and a central seat at the table in American government. Why has the political environment been so difficult?

The answers have been all over the board: American workers did not need to organize because they flourished without unions; American workers were divided by ethnicity and race in ways European workers were not; employers in the United States were unusually powerful (this study, for example) and got governments to crack down on unions (the notorious cases involve state governors using the National Guard to break strikes); the American dream of self-employment distracted workers; the American electoral system prevented a labor party from growing; Americans’ individualism led them to reject collective action; and many more. (This book canvasses a lot of the explanations.)

"Do you approve or disapprove of unions?" chart showing Gallup results

Gallup results, 1936-2006. Dark green: approve; light green: disapprove

The political restraints on unions seem to be much harsher than Americans’ opinion about unions. As the Gallup Poll data shown here indicate, approval of unions has slipped about 20 points since their heyday, but in the 2000s Americans have been about twice as likely to approve than disapprove. Perhaps there is something in our politics, as some analysts suggest, that have given employers excessive clout in setting the rules.

Open and Closed

I want to add another consideration: It may not be American individualism that resists unionization, but American voluntarism (as discussed in Made in America). Unions face critical “free-rider” problems if membership is totally voluntary. For example, I could benefit from the union’s effort to improve working conditions at my workplace without paying dues; I could take or keep a job by offering to work at below the union wage; I could keep working through a strike and then cash in on the success of the strike; and so on. If individual workers can act for themselves in these ways, then it becomes nearly impossible to organize and sustain a union.

To be effective, however, unions usually need some way to enforce or strongly encourage membership and loyalty. The classic mechanism is the “closed” or “union” shop, which requires paying union dues to have a job with a particular employer. “Right-to-Work” laws in about half the states make such union-employer contracts illegal, requiring “open shops.” In Europe, as I noted, there are many incentives to encourage or require union membership.

One might have imagined that Americans would be great union members: After all, Americans have been celebrated for centuries as joiners of voluntary associations. But that may be the kicker: the associations must be voluntary associations, ones that individuals are free to join or to leave, not compulsory.

Perhaps, then, Americans are fine with unions – as voluntary associations like churches or social clubs – but reject compulsory ones. And it may be that unions cannot be really effective if the door to come and go is really open. One of organized labor’s burdens then, may be this strand of long-standing American culture.

Going back to the graph above, perhaps the great surge in unionization during the middle of the 20th century was Americans’ emergency response to economic collapse – a deviation from their typical practice. Then they started returning to the cultural norm, an insistence on voluntariness. The current economic crisis has not been deep enough – or perhaps not sufficiently exploited – to spur another surge of counter-cultural unionization.

-– 1. Rosenbloom, , “Labor Unions” in Historical Statistics of the United States, Earliest Times to the Present: Millennial Edition.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.