Solidarity Forever? Union Membership Continues its Long Decline

Nearly 10% of the labor movement disappears under Obama, the largest drop since Reagan

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released its 2016 union membership data which had more bad news for the labor movement. In recent decades, folks in labor have held their breath and hoped for the best every year but are usually disappointed when these numbers come out every January. The latest survey shows that the union membership rate or union density (the percentage of all workers who are union members) is down from 11.1% in 2015 to 10.7%. The percentage of all workers who are covered by a union contract is slightly higher but declined from 12.3% to 12%.

This recent decrease continues a long decline going back to the 1960’s. Looking at union density over time, (see chart below), we see that it peaked in the 1950’s at about 1/3 of the workforce. This occurred after the huge upsurge of worker militancy and union organizing during the Great Depression, World War II and the following years. This was the era of general strikes (where many workers in different workplaces strike at the same time) in a number of cities including San Francisco and Minneapolis in 1934, and sit-down strikes where workers took over their workplace, such as the famous Flint General Motors strike of 1936. The process for workers to form unions and bargain contracts was systematized through the passage of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This law set up procedures for union elections and bargaining under a new agency, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

From LBO News from Doug Henwood

We can see that public sector unionization took off decades later and remains relatively high while private sector union presence is extremely low at less than 7%, a level that hasn’t been seen in a century. Private sector unionization is in real danger of becoming essentially irrelevant politically and economically, a trend that will be reinforced with the possible passage of more so-called “Right to Work” anti-union laws.

Weren’t Things Supposed to be Better With Obama?

Under President Obama, arguably the most pro-labor president in decades, unions lost over 1.5 million members, about 10% of the labor movement, and failed to get passage of the Employee Free Choice Act which would have assisted organizing. Let’s repeat, 10% of the labor movement disappeared under Obama. There were about 16.1 million union members in 2008 and 14.6 million in 2016. A comparison of union decline with previous presidents who had eight years in office is interesting, as shown in the chart below. The labor movement lost fewer members during Bush and Clinton and many more during Reagan. A more labor friendly president may be helpful, indeed the NLRB under Obama was the best in many years, but is certainly no guarantee of success as we can see, and other factors matter much more.

Why is This Happening?

The reasons for the post-1950’s union decline have been understood for a long time and fall into two broad areas. Increased and sophisticated resistance to workers’ organizing from employers and conservative legal rulings, as well as extensive automation, outsourcing, subcontracting and the globalization of production have made it harder to organize and eliminated many traditionally union jobs. This also makes many organized, higher labor cost workplaces more vulnerable to closing. There is a much higher public sector union density because these factors aren’t as significant.

However, the other important reason is more internal to the labor movement. A Left critique of Labor has long maintained that the movement itself turned away from the worker militancy necessary to win and protect gains. In my recent review of Staughton Lynd’s Solidarity Unionism, I summarized Lynd’s position that increasing union staff domination and declining worker militancy has weakened Labor.

Workers were already organizing and improving working conditions, but the NLRA contract system was then imposed by the government to tame a militant 1930s labor movement and create the conditions for industrial peace. Opportunistic labor leaders used the rank-and-file workers’ disruptions to step in as responsible partners that could restore order with a union contract. Unions became contract administrators who disciplined unruly workers. Moreover, the ejection of the labor movement’s radical wing during the anti-Communist scare of the 1940s and 1950s eliminated a whole culture of militant unionism. Over the years, rank-and-file initiative and militancy has been weakened, such that when the employer anti-union offensive resumed in the 1970s and 1980s, unions were unprepared.

In contrast to mainstream “contractual unionism”, Lynd advocates “solidarity unionism” where unions are run directly by the members who organize primarily through direct action on the job to improve working conditions. I wouldn’t adopt all of Lynd’s recommendations, but I agree with his general description of how unions were domesticated over time.

The Rise of Inequality
The ramifications of this decline for U.S. wealth distribution have been significant. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) shows how the decline of union density correlates with the increase in wealth controlled by the top 10% (see chart below).

Union decline is not the only reason for this increased inequality but is a major factor. And this certainly makes sense, after all union organizing increases workers’ bargaining power and extracts higher wages and benefits. The AFL-CIO reports that union members earn 27% more than their non-union counterparts and are much more likely to have health and pension benefits, so if unionization is widespread, more wealth flows to labor in general. Moreover, it’s worth emphasizing that this trend is not only bad for union workers but for everyone. The EPI reports that the decline of union bargaining power has cost non-union workers $133 billion in annual wages. EPI states:

Unions keep wages high for nonunion workers for several reasons: union agreements set wage standards and a strong union presence prompts managers to keep wages high in order to prevent workers from organizing or their employees from leaving. Moreover, unions set industry-wide norms, influencing what is seen as a “moral economy.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

How to reverse this trend has been the major question in Labor for the last several decades. More unions have increased resources for organizing and adopted innovative “corporate campaigns” and other strategies that don’t rely exclusively on standard union elections. But this hasn’t been nearly enough. In a previous post I reviewed NLRB election results for the past five years, and even though the union win rate has improved lately, there simply aren’t enough workers being organized.

The larger problem I believe is what Lynd referred to in his book. Unions must democratize their organizations, empower their members and regain the militant spirit of the 1930’s. This is a major challenge because unions are institutions that are thoroughly enmeshed, if embattled, in the current capitalist system. They have assets and benefit funds, and a network of political and contractual relationships that deter what labor leaders would consider to be risky strategies. For example, one reason that it would be difficult to have a general strike today, nationally or even in a single city, is that union contracts almost always have a “no-strike clause” and they all expire at different times.

There have been promising developments though, and some unions have been willing to experiment. The Fight for $15 movement, which started among fast food workers, and OUR Walmart are trying out different kinds of unionism, more like worker associations similar to the growing Alt-Labor movement of worker centers. The historic Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) has been growing and is committed to a grassroots, member-run organizing model with anti-capitalist politics, and is a current example of the solidarity unionism model that Lynd supports.

Furthermore, the large Chicago Teachers Union strike and the Communications Workers’ strike at Verizon show that unions can wage major fights and win. These campaigns that are dynamic, bold and creative, and rooted in the deep engagement of the members, show the possibilities for the future. Joe Burns has written several books arguing for the need to “revive the strike” in the private and public sector. The journal Labor Notes has since the 1970’s been at the center of the democracy movement within Labor, and has extensively chronicled union renewal efforts.

The comparison of union member loss under the last four presidents with two terms in office, two Democrats and two Republicans, I think strongly shows that the labor movement can’t depend on political “friends” to grow again. We need to find the solution ourselves. And this isn’t to say that striking is easy, far from it. The labor movement went through some harrowing failed strikes in the 1980’s including the disastrous PATCO strike where over 11,000 air traffic controllers were fired. Some would say that labor has suffered from a strike-averse “PATCO Syndrome” ever since. There are certainly great risks to a militant strategy based on widespread workplace disruptions. Legal protections aren’t good enough and it’s too easy to fire and replace strikers. I would not argue that labor should recklessly adopt this framework but should quickly build the internal education, strategy and confidence that are necessary, especially in the new Trump Era.

NOTE: Methodology on Union Data

For Union Members Lost under each president, I started with the number of union members reported by the BLS for the year before the president took office and subtracted the number reported for the last year of their presidency. Dividing this by the original number gives the % Decrease. For example, with Obama, I subtracted the 2016 number from the 2008 number and then divided by the 2008 number.