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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Why Has Union Membership Declined?

UC Berkeley's Claude Fischer on the decline of unions:

Labor’s laboring effort, by Claude Fischer: ...Historians and sociologists have tried to figure out for many years now why union membership in the United States is so low – now about one-eighth of the employed – compared to elsewhere in the world and why it has dropped so far – down from about one-third in 1955. ...
The United States’ rate of “union density” ... is far below of that of most western European nations (with the interesting exception of France) which range from about 20% to about 60%. While union membership rates have been declining there as well, the drop-off is not nearly as steep as here. ...
As the graph below shows, unionization leaped up during the Depression, New Deal Era, and early post-war period. Since then, it has dropped steadily... Recent studies point to a few key explanations for the precipitous drop in the last half-century. One, clearly, is the ... disappearance of the blue-collar industrial jobs that once spurred demand for unions... Another factor is globalization – both U.S. manufacturers (and now service providers, too) moving ... to low-wage nations and workers from low-wage nations moving into the U.S. economy. Although unions have had a few successes organizing a few immigrant workers, for various reasons the immigrants are a hard-to-unionize work force.

chart showing union density by year, 1880-2000
Union density

Political constraints on unions have also become much more inhibiting over recent decades. Starting with the end of the New Deal and intensifying with the Reagan Administration in 1981, the rules on organizing and the regulatory oversight of the workplace have made it harder to establish and sustain unions. Also, decentralization in the United States ... allows states to set many labor laws. The states with anti-union laws make it especially hard to unionize and, by attracting business, undermine unionization in other states.
In Europe, union membership is often a routine, required part of getting a job and unions have official or semi-official roles (along with associations of employers) in national government... Such a central role for unions would be hard to imagine in the United States. How come?
Why Weak Labor?
This question has perplexed scholars for over a century. Commonly called the “Why No Socialism in America?” question...
The answers have been all over the board: American workers did not need to organize because they flourished without unions; American workers were divided by ethnicity and race in ways European workers were not; employers in the United States were unusually powerful  ... and got governments to crack down on unions (the notorious cases involve state governors using the National Guard to break strikes); the American dream of self-employment distracted workers; the American electoral system prevented a labor party from growing; Americans’ individualism led them to reject collective action; and many more. ...

"Do you approve or disapprove of unions?" chart showing Gallup results
Gallup results. Dark green: approve; light green: disapprove

The political restraints on unions seem to be much harsher than Americans’ opinion about unions. As the Gallup Poll data shown here indicate, approval of unions has slipped about 20 points since their heyday, but in the 2000s Americans have been about twice as likely to approve than disapprove. Perhaps there is something in our politics, as some analysts suggest, that have given employers excessive clout in setting the rules.
Open and Closed
I want to add another consideration: It may not be American individualism that resists unionization, but American voluntarism (as discussed in Made in America). Unions face critical “free-rider” problems if membership is totally voluntary. For example, I could benefit from the union’s effort to improve working conditions at my workplace without paying dues...
To be effective, however, unions usually need some way to enforce or strongly encourage membership and loyalty. The classic mechanism is the “closed” or “union” shop... “Right-to-Work” laws in about half the states make such union-employer contracts illegal... In Europe, as I noted, there are many incentives to encourage or require union membership. ...
Americans have been celebrated for centuries as joiners of voluntary associations. But that may be the kicker: the associations must be voluntary associations... Perhaps, then, Americans are fine with unions – as voluntary associations like churches or social clubs – but reject compulsory ones. And it may be that unions cannot be really effective if the door to come and go is really open. ...
Going back to the graph above, perhaps the great surge in unionization during the middle of the 20th century was Americans’ emergency response to economic collapse – a deviation from their typical practice. Then they started returning to the cultural norm, an insistence on voluntariness. The current economic crisis has not been deep enough – or perhaps not sufficiently exploited – to spur another surge of counter-cultural unionization.

I am happy to stick with the explanation that "our politics ... have given employers excessive clout in setting the rules." But if I were to go down the path the author takes, I think I would attribute it more to our desire for equal opportunity and fairness than our "celebrated" characteristic "as joiners of voluntary associations."

Update: Also, I meant to ask: What caused the sudden decline in support for unions in mid 2000s? Disapproval jumped from around 30% to 45%, then fell back to 41%, and approval fell similarly.

    Posted by on Saturday, September 11, 2010 at 10:33 AM in Economics, Politics, Unemployment | Permalink  Comments (85)


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