Once Again, U.S. Unions Must Adapt to Survive

By Porter, Eduardo | International Herald Tribune, July 19, 2012 | Go to article overview

Once Again, U.S. Unions Must Adapt to Survive


Porter, Eduardo, International Herald Tribune


History shows that by changing its priorities and methods, organized labor can overcome seemingly daunting challenges like those it faces today in the United States.

Organized labor in the United States is in free fall. The number of workers who belong to unions has plummeted about 20 percent during the past decade. Only 8 percent of all U.S. workers are unionized. And leading labor activists are wringing their hands over the seemingly inevitable death of a movement unable to cope with technological change.

"I see no reason to believe that American trade unionism will so revolutionize itself within a short period of time as to become in the next decade a more potent social force than it has been in the past decade," warns one of the foremost U.S. economists.

The description sounds like the labor movement today. But the statistics are from 1930. George E. Barnett, president of the American Economic Association, issued the warning at the depth of the Great Depression in 1932.

Mr. Barnett proved to be quite wrong. A decade after his speech at the group's annual meeting in Cincinnati, one in five U.S. workers belonged to a union. Another 10 years later, organized labor was at the peak of its power.

While it would be naive to invest too much faith in this mistake as a precedent, history offers some clues about how the labor movement -- once again on the mat, pummeled into insignificance by economic forces beyond its control -- might recover its relevance to American workers and society.

Today, fewer than 1 in 14 U.S. private-sector workers belongs to a union, half the portion of 15 years ago. Where unions matter most - - fighting for workers' share of the spoils of economic growth -- they lost the battle long ago. Despite soaring worker productivity, the typical American worker today takes home only 2 percent more than a quarter of a century ago, after adjusting for inflation.

Yet while union leaders have spent the last decade fretting, they have been unable to reverse the downward trend.

Partly, this has to do with the diagnosis of the problem. Many union leaders still like to believe that an ideological shift spun the labor movement into a death spiral. President Ronald Reagan, elected in the 1980s, set out to destroy obstacles to unfettered markets -- including organized labor -- with ideological assistance from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain.

The ideological assault on unions changed workplace norms. In the United States, company executives who had tolerated unions as standard features of the workplace started spending billions to fight them off.

Losing control of the factory floor, unions lost touch with society, too. In the 1950s and '60s, union contracts set a standard that was followed across the economy. Today, they are too weak to be standard-setters. And nonunion workers tend to resent rather than applaud the better pay and benefits of their unionized brethren.

Only about one-fifth of all Americans say they trust unions, according to polling by Gallup, the same share that trust banks or big business. And unions' once impressive political clout has been overwhelmed by a wave of corporate money. Their biggest campaign this spring, trying to remove Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin from office after he rolled back collective bargaining rights for state employees, ended last month in ignominious defeat.

But this reading of history misses a fundamental part of the story. Notably, it underplays the effects of globalization, which intensified competition and pushed businesses to cut labor costs. And it ignores technology, which changed the nature of work.

In the 1920s, unions were as unprepared for change as they are today. Dorian T. Warren, a professor of political science at Columbia University in New York, notes that at the turn of the 20th century, guilds were organized around crafts, like carpentry or glass blowing.

This structure gave organized labor enormous power in the economy. …

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