At 60-year low, unions face potential renaissance

Unions are weak in the US. The ratio of American workers who belong to unions has declined since peaking in the mid-fifties, when it was between a quarter to a third of the workforce, to a little over a tenth today.

union percentSource: Gerald Mayer, Cornell University

Actual union membership in the US has remained about the same during that decline, around 15 million workers–that is, union decline relative to the overall population has not been caused by loss of members, but by failure to grow apace with the population.

The decline of unions’ influence has not occurred in a vacuum. From the beginning, business interests have sought to quell worker-organizing through a variety of tactics. One successful strategy has been to fund intellectual activism in the form of think tanks, which has changed the ideological landscape of the US from one in which regulation and worker organization were taken for granted to one in which free-markets have been deified. In the words of Susan George:

[The neoliberals] have built this highly efficient ideological cadre because they understand what the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci was talking about when he developed the concept of cultural hegemony. If you can occupy peoples’ heads, their hearts and their hands will follow…They have spent hundreds of millions of dollars, but the result has been worth every penny to them because they have made neo-liberalism seem as if it were the natural and normal condition of humankind. No matter how many disasters of all kinds the neo-liberal system has visibly created, no matter what financial crises it may engender, no matter how many losers and outcasts it may create, it is still made to seem inevitable, like an act of God, the only possible economic and social order available to us.

Source: Susan George, the Transnational Institute

So opposition to democratic organizing by workers has been one consequence of the rise of neoliberalism,* since unions supposedly obstruct market efficiency and thus human welfare. I’m not just describing history here: workers at Walmart and at fast food businesses across the country are currently struggling to organize; you can see examples of employer-funded anti-union strategies and propaganda here, here, and here. Union membership also negatively correlates with income inequality, which peaked in the 1920s, declined until the 1950s, and then remained more-or-less stable until the early 1980s and the rise of neoliberism under Reagan and Thatcher :


Source: Emmanuel Saez et al, Journal of Economic Perspectives

This is where we are: since the post-war period, union influence has continuously ceded to business influence. Workplace democracy is at a sixty-year low. Private business interests rule the economy and, through lobbying, substantially control government.

In spite of all this, I suggest cautious optimism on the part of economic democrats, for two reasons. First, there’s a big difference between the decline of unions vs. the death of unions. Again, actual membership has stayed about the same for half a century: there is a die-hard core membership with the potential to serve as a foundation for a unionization renaissance. Moreover, worker desire for unions has spiked in recent years:

union desire graphSource: Richard B. Freeman, Economic Policy Institute

Second, we are living in a unique historical moment. The financial crash of 2008 shook the world like nothing since the Great Depression, i.e. since unionization’s first spring. The resonance of Occupy Wallstreet with wider America, the recent success of socialist candidates in Seattle and Minneapolis, and the current, unprecedented push for a higher minimum wage** suggests that most Americans no longer believe that free markets alone will save them, that “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

I can’t predict the future, but I can observe the present, and right now there appears to be the potential for–though no guarantee of–a mass movement in favor of economic democracy. I plan to be a part of that movement, and I encourage you to do the same.

*Though it seems to me that anti-unionism is not a necessary consequence of free-market ideology. After all, organized workers are simply pursuing their self-interests in the same way that corporations do.

**In real wages (i.e. adjusted for inflation), the federal minimum wage peaked in 1968. Someone working full-time at the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 would be living at less than 60% of the poverty line (ibid). See my defense of a $15 minimum wage here.


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