"The Crisis of Us Trade Unionism and What Needs to Be Done"*

By Devinatz, Victor G. | Labor Law Journal, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

"The Crisis of Us Trade Unionism and What Needs to Be Done"*


Devinatz, Victor G., Labor Law Journal


I. Introduction

US trade unionism is in crisis. Union density has been declining throughout the United States since 1955, the year of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL- CIO) merger. With union density peaking at more than 34 percent in 1954, ' increasing globalization over the last thirty years has led to the dramatic weakening of the industrial unions in the basic manufacturing sectors of the US economy such as auto, steel and rubber. The most current statistics published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) demonstrate the severity of this problem. Private sector union density in 2011 registered only 6.9 percent2 which is indicative of the hemorrhaging of millions of members in manufacturing combined with labor being unable to successfully create new bargaining units in both mature and newly emerging industries. While much smaller than the private sector, the public sector continues to be a relatively bright spot for US trade unionism early in the twenty-first century's second decade. With union density among federal, state and municipal government employees exceeding that found in the private sector by fivefold, at 37.0 percent3, public sector unionism is relatively healthy. This might soon change, however, with the recent attacks by state governments commencing in early 2011.

This plummeting of union density has weakened US labor's collective bargaining power and all but ended utilizing the strike as an offensive and defensive weapon. Since the BLS began keeping records in 1947, US strike activity has hit record lows in the past two years. In 2010, there were only 11 strikes and/or lockouts involving 1,000 or more workers for a total of 45,000 workers while in 2009, there were but five work stoppages (with 13,000 workers) ofthat size.4 These figures represent a dramatic decline from an annual average of nearly 280 strikes (comprising more than 1.4 million employees) from 1970 through 1980. 5 Moreover, the continued erosion of private sector union density and the belief that dramatic steps had to be taken to reverse this dismal state of affairs was the primary motivation for dissident unions seceding from the AFL-CIO in the summer of 2005 and subsequently establishing the Change to Win Federation (CTW) that September.6

This crisis in US trade unionism first became apparent shortly after Ronald Reagan's election to the US presidency in November 1980. After firing the striking air traffic controllers in August 1981 and breaking their union, things went rapidly downhill for the US labor movement. In addition to declining union density, the 1980s were characterized by numerous lost strikes including the 1983 Greyhound bus drivers' work stoppage, the 1985-1986 Local P-9 strike against Hormel7 and the 1988 United Paperworkers Local 14 walkout8 against International Paper. Throughout the 1990s, unions suffered major defeats in additional work stoppages including Staley, Caterpillar,9 and Detroit Newspapers10 although the victorious 1997 United Parcel Service strike conducted by the Teamsters" remained anomalous in this bleak landscape.

In this paper, I will argue that the crisis of US trade unionism in the early 21st century is ultimately the crisis of business unionism which was embraced by labor from 1945 to 1975, the "golden age" of the US trade union movement. This approach remained viable circa 1945 to 1975 but sowed the seeds of US trade unionism's destruction beginning in the late 1970s/early 1980s as business unionism and political action provided diminishing returns to a faltering US trade union movement.

US trade unionism's serious troubles resulted in the election of John Sweeney as the AFLCIO president in 1995. Serving in this position through late summer 2009, as a union reformer, Sweeney sought to replace a sclerotic business unionism with a variant of social movement unionism (SMU), combined with the adoption of several innovative changes to the AFL-CIO's political involvement in the electoral arena, in an attempt to revitalize US labor. …

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