U.S. Trade Unionism under Globalization: The Death of Voluntarism and the Turn to Politics?

By Devinatz, Victor G. | Labor Law Journal, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

U.S. Trade Unionism under Globalization: The Death of Voluntarism and the Turn to Politics?


Devinatz, Victor G., Labor Law Journal


I. Introduction

Union density has been declining throughout the world since circa 1980. Since the peak of union density, when it exceeded 34 percent in 19541, the erosion of the industrial unions in key manufacturing sectors of the United States economy, such as auto, steel and rubber, over the last three decades has resulted in a crisis for private sector unionism. The most recent statistics indicate that private sector union density in 2010 registered 6.9 percent2, due to the loss of union members in the aforementioned industries, combined with the labor organizations' inability to successfully establish new bargaining units in both mature and newly emerging industries. Although considerably smaller than the private sector, the public sector remains a relative stronghold for U.S. trade unionism at the end of the 21st century's first decade, with union density among federal, state and municipal government employees more than five times higher than that found in the private sector, at 36.2 percent.

This dramatic decline in union density, of course, has negatively impacted U.S. labor by undermining collective bargaining power and discouraging the use of the strike as an economic weapon to achieve union objectives. Furthermore, the belief that something had to be done to reverse the downward slide of private sector union density undoubtedly was the primary factor in dissident unions disaffiliating from the American Federation of Labor- Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) in the summer of 2005 and subsequently launching the Change to Win Federation (CTW) that autumn.3

Because of this significant decrease in private sector union density, in " Competition in the Global Workphce: The Role of Law in Economic Markets: Trade Unionism Under Globalization: The Demise of Voluntarism ?H distinguished labor law scholar Samuel Estreicher argues that since unions have been unable to achieve their goals through collective bargaining over the last few decades, they have increasingly turned to politics to attain these desired objectives. According to Estreicher, "a qualitative change in labor's relationship to the state"5 is emerging, one currently characterized by collective bargaining becoming supplementary to politics whereas in the past, it was vice versa. While labor's economic goals remain the same, Estreicher contends that unions are increasingly utilizing politics to extract concessions from the state that they cannot attain from employers at the bargaining table.

Estreicher's provocative thesis can be summarized as follows: due to increased competition in U.S. private markets resulting from deregulation, the implementation of new technology, and "the opening up of global labor and product markets" (resulting from declining costs of transportation and communication combined with the weakening of trade barriers), the U.S. trade union movement will operate primarily "as a political organization."6 While Estreicher acknowledges that collective bargaining will continue to exist primarily as "an institutional raison d'être"7 and for funding unions' political activities, it will no longer be the primary methodology for unions to further their members' interests. As for the answer to the question posed in the title of Estreicher's article, the author argues that the philosophy of voluntarism, where workers depend on the unions to achieve gains that will improve their personal situations through collective bargaining and other forms of economic struggle (such as strikes and boycotts) rather than through dependence on the state, no longer characterizes any major union or trade union federation in the United States.

In this paper, I argue, contra Estreicher, that globalization has not led U.S. trade unions to modify their tactics in pursuit of their economic goals. Increased competition, the opening up of labor and product markets, and the increased use of technology has not resulted in the unions' recent political involvement and does not constitute "a qualitative change in labor's relationship to the state. …

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