Unions in the 21st Century

By Mosca, Joseph B.; Pressman, Steven | Public Personnel Management, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview
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Unions in the 21st Century


Mosca, Joseph B., Pressman, Steven, Public Personnel Management


In the past, unions were a major news item. It seemed that every other week some major union was threatening to disrupt a large segment of the economy by initiating a strike. More recently, strike activity has declined; however strikes at Eastern Airlines, Greyhound, and The Daily News have managed to make the headlines. What is perhaps most noteworthy about these recent strikes is that planes have continued to fly, buses still carried passengers to their destinations, and newspapers were still printed.

How is it that a force once able to disrupt whole industries can have so little influence now? One answer lies in the decline in union membership. Besides representing a smaller share of the work force, unions no longer support one another's objectives. In addition, since the mid-1950s, unions have been fighting a losing battle to maintain public approval. According to the Gallup Poll annual survey, by 1979 public approval of unions declined to its lowest point in 43 years, with only 53% of the American people expressing approval. Compared to a 76% approval rating in 1957 and a 72% approval rating when the first Gallup Poll of worker attitudes was conducted in 1936, the figure for 1979 represented a drastic reduction.

Will unions survive this decline in membership and approval? To find the answer, we must first consider the sources of the problem. Then, we can examine the roles that unions must play if they are to survive and flourish in the 21st Century.

Sources of Union Membership Decline

Bureau of Labor Statistics Surveys indicate that union membership among production employees in metropolitan areas declined from 73% to 51% between 1961 and 1984. While this leaves little doubt that declines in unionization have occurred over the past 20 or 30 years, no single factor seems to be responsible for the decline.

Geographic shifts or structural changes in the U.S. economy have been cited by some researchers as a major reason for the decline in union membership. Manufacturing employment has shifted away from states such as Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania to the Carolinas, Texas, and other sunbelt states where union membership is low. Between 1956 and 1974, manufacturing jobs grew by 67% in the ten states with the lowest proportion of union membership. Passage of Right-to-Work laws in states such as New Mexico has also contributed to the decline of union membership [Stieber, 1981].

However, Philip Doyle found that less than one-third of the 22 percentage point decline in unionization could be attributed to changes in the regional and industrial mix of jobs in the United States [Doyle, 1985]. In addition, he found that only 10 to 15 percent of that decline could be explained by changes in the size of business establishments. Thus, half the reason for the decline in unionization must be due to something other than these structural changes.

Even attributing half the decline in union membership to structural change may be overly optimistic. Freeman and Medoff [1984, p. 29] note that other nations have experienced the same sorts of structural changes as the U.S., yet these nations have experienced increases in union membership rather than declines. Dickens and Leonard [1985] provide further evidence that structural changes in the economy have not been the primary reason for the decline in unionization. Their regression analyses, which controlled for other factors tending to reduce union membership, found that the decline in employment in heavily unionized industries was not responsible for the decline in unionization. This means that factors other than structural or regional changes must have contributed to the decrease in union membership.

According to Thomas Karier [1991], during the 1980s, much of the decrease in unionization stemmed from the disproportionate growth of non-union employment. He believes that management's opposition to representation elections, the downsizing of manufacturing operations with high union representation, the replacement of striking workers, and the subcontracting of previously unionized work all contributed to declining unionization.

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