Union membership declined from 11.8% of the workforce in 2011, to 11.3% in 2012, according a recent report by the national Bureau of Labor Statistics and is now the lowest it has been since the 1930s, according to the Washington Post. Union membership peaked in the 1950s at nearly 33% of the total workforce. By 1983, that number had dropped to 20%, and today it is just barely 11%.
Public sector union membership (35.9%) is still significantly higher than private sector union membership (6.6%). However, it also saw the biggest losses in 2012, due largely to state budget cuts and public sector union-busting campaigns and legislation (e.g. Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana).
It is easy to blame the economy and politicians, which is what both the unions and the press have been doing, and these both have played a role, but the unions themselves must also take some of the responsibility for their own demise—a natural consequence of their own misguided objectives, policies and tactics.
Let’s start with a simple tactical mistake: letting employers layoff non-tenured or probationary employees. In a union shop, all workers pay dues and are supposedly represented by the union, even if they are probationary and contractually can be fired at will. Unions have typically taken the stance that this is the boss’ prerogative and that there is nothing the union can do about it. Yet the unions have collected dues from these future laid off employees and led them to believe they were supporting them. This, alone, can have a significant impact on workers’ attitudes about unions, particularly among younger workers who are generally the most recently hired and first to be laid off (why join a union or participate when they will only take your money and abandon you as soon as times get tough).
This is probably one reason why union membership rates are highest among workers aged 55-64 (14.9%) and lowest among youth aged 16-24 (4.2%). Of course older workers are also more likely to have already seen the benefits of a union, either through a well-negotiated contract or by virtue of having worked at both union and nonunion jobs in the past. They are also more likely to have higher pay and better benefits than their younger colleagues, which can drive a wedge between them and undermine solidarity. This has been exacerbated by the two- and three-tiered contracts that many unions have negotiated with employers in exchange for reduced layoffs and less odious concessions for their veteran members (see UAW discussion below).
Another problem is that despite their increasing use of Facebook and Twitter unions are still organizing like it’s the 1950s. They have not learned how to appeal to younger workers culturally or materially. They presume that all workers have the same simple goals—job protection (whatever the cost), higher wages and benefits—and they fight for these goals in the same traditional ways (bargaining, concessions, lobbying, letter writing, buying politicians). Yet they seldom send out organizers to listen to their members (young and old, alike) and solicit their opinions, desires or strategies.
On a broader scale, the unions, particularly the AFL-CIO, have taken a nationalistic (and naïve) approach to job protection in hopes that their complaints about human rights abuses abroad will keep their jobs from being sent overseas. This has been an utter failure because employers move their operations to wherever they can get the cheapest labor and raw materials, regardless of a country’s human rights records. Indeed, this is often seen as an advantage (i.e., cheap workers who are too terrified of prison or assassination to form a union or make demands on the employer). Thus, if Americans want to prevent their jobs from being exported to other countries, they need to work in solidarity with international unions to win improved wages, benefits and working conditions for the oppressed workers of those countries, bringing the standard of living and cost of labor in those countries more in line with our own.
As I write this, Jorge Parra, a General Motors worker from Columbia (and president of the Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors), continues his hunger strike at GM Headquarters in Detroit to protest the mass firings of injured GM employees in Columbia (and their continued refusal to allow unions in their Columbian facilities). As noble and courageous as Parra’s protest is (he is on the 55th day of his hunger strike and extremely weak, while comrades in Columbia are routinely assassinated for union activity), the UAW has only paid lip service solidarity to the Columbian workers. Certainly many rank and file members have come out in support of Parra, but the UAW is not authorizing any sort of job action to get their Columbian colleagues their jobs back. Indeed, the UAW is so terrified of losing domestic jobs to Columbia and other lower wage countries that it negotiated a two-tiered contract with the big three automakers (after they slashed 250,000 jobs and received billions of dollars in taxpayer bailout money) in which new hires are paid less than $15 per hour, less than half the traditional wages of auto workers.
Another broad strategic failure of the unions is their increasing reliance on politics at the expense of organizing and job actions. Supporting candidates and campaigns seems less risky than strikes (e.g., no injunctions, fines, jail time, beatings) and more exciting for the union bosses (e.g., wining and dining with the ruling elite). But it is also a phenomenally expensive longshot gamble that pits unions against billionaire bosses and their Super PACs in hopes of getting their guy elected so he might support one or two initiatives that might help workers a little if they happen to pass. It is an incredibly circuitous and unreliable strategy.
Consider the California Teachers Association, which pumped millions of dollars into Jerry Brown’s campaign for governor (and nearly $212 million on state political campaigns over the last decade). All the teachers got in exchange for their donations, phone-banking and canvassing was a CTA lobbyist on the state school board and a threat by the governor to slash K-12 funding again if California voters didn’t approve a tax hike (Proposition 30). Not surprisingly, voters did approve Prop 30, which held state funding at 2011-2012 levels, but did nothing to restore any of the $20 billion that was slashed from K-12 funding over the past 4 years. As a consequence, schools will not have to lay off any more teachers, but there are still the thousands who were laid off over the past four years who will not be rehired—that is, thousands of former public sector union members, many of who no longer belong to any union (and some, who are no doubt still looking for work).
None of these failures, however, are inconsistent with the social contract that has always existed between unions and employers: the employers’ role is to provide jobs and the unions’ role is to keep employees working and profits rolling in (e.g., make concessions and get a quick contract, avoid strikes at all costs). Granted, the unions have always been the lesser partner in this relationship, their status and power dependent on their usefulness to employers. What we are seeing today with the declining power of unions is employers’ recognition that they no longer need the unions to keep the workers in line.