The State of Our Unions

In what has become something of a masochistic ritual, for the last week I have been eagerly awaiting the release of the annual report on union membership in the US, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases every year at the end of January. To my surprise, this year’s report was not as grim as I had expected it to be. In 2011, the share of wage and salary earners who were union members was 11.8%, virtually unchanged from the 2010 rate of 11.9%. The public sector unionization rate actually increased to 37% from 36.2% while the private sector rate remained steady at 6.9%. The share of workers represented by a union (those who report no union affiliation but whose jobs are covered by a union contract) ticked down a notch to 13% from 13.1%.

Considering the layoffs and attacks on collective bargaining rights that occurred in the public sector last year, the news could have been far worse. But for those concerned with reversing the fortunes of a labor movement mired long-term decline, maintenance of the status quo is nothing to be happy about. And when you drill down beneath the headline numbers and consider the situation is more grim than it may appear at first glance.

Because labor markets and labor law regimes vary significantly from state to state, one needs to analyze the state-level data in order to gain a fuller picture of labor union strength. Unsurprisingly, union densities remain highest in the Northeast and along the Pacific coast and lowest in the mountain West and in the states of the old Confederacy. The states with the highest densities account for a radically disproportionate share of union members as a whole. As the BLS notes, “over half of the 14.8 union members in the US lived in just seven states (California, 2.4 million; New York, 1.9 million; Illinois, 0.9 million; Pennsylvania, 0.8 million; Michigan, 0.7 million; and New Jersey and Ohio, 0.6 million each), though these states accounted for only about one-third of wage and salary employment nationally.” Big and growing states like Texas and North Carolina remain largely union-free (5.2% and 2.9%, respectively) while union strength remains concentrated in states with declining or stagnating populations (such as New York) or in places with relatively small numbers of wage and salary earners and unique economic circumstances (like Hawaii and Alaska).

There were few surprises when it comes to the demographic profile of union members. Membership rates were higher among men than women, and higher among African Americans than other racial/ethnic groups because of their disproportionate rate of public sector employment (African-American males were the single most highly unionized demographic group). Disturbingly, however, union membership rates were highly segmented by age. Workers aged 55–64 had the highest membership rate at 15.7%, while workers in the 16–24 cohort had an appallingly low membership rate of 4.4%. An entire generation is coming of age with little to no exposure to the labor movement or the ethic of solidarity it represents in its finest moments.

As already noted, union membership is concentrated in the public sector in both absolute and relative terms; 37% (or 7.6 million) public sector workers were members while only 6.9% (or 7.2 million) of private sector workers carried a union card. Among public sector occupations, police, firefighters, and teachers had the highest rates of unionization; among private sector occupations, membership rates were highest in transportation and utilities as well as construction. Such extreme sectoral bifurcation is disastrous. The near-death of unions in the private sector makes it very easy for neoliberal politicians in both parties to isolate and scapegoat unionized public sector workers, whose relatively decent (but by no means luxurious) pay and benefits packages are supported by taxes paid by downwardly mobile and insecure workers in the private sector. And even though unionization should be supported and encouraged in every industry and occupation, the private sector and the productive industries still constitute the engine room of the capitalist system and are the strategic ground on which the labor movement must build its strength.

Until that happens the labor movement will continue to resemble the general in his labyrinth; far removed from the heroic victories of its youth, huddled in its regional and sectoral strongholds, unable to broaden its base or protect its current members from the steady erosion of their working and living standards.

This is the terrain on which defensive struggles against attacks on collective bargaining rights and “right-to-work” laws have played out in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and elsewhere over the past year. With the exception of the fight against SB5 in Ohio, all of these struggles have failed to attain their goals (barring an unforeseen social explosion, Indiana will likely pass its right to work law in the coming days). These fights are the latest in a long succession of ostensible “this far and no further” moments in the life of the labor movement in recent years. John Sweeney’s ascendancy to the AFL-CIO presidency in 1995 was supposed to stop labor’s slide — but it didn’t. The 2005 split in the AFL-CIO and the establishment of the rival Change to Win federation was supposed to be the harbinger of labor’s new dawn — but it wasn’t. Even though organized labor has, to a significant extent, gotten past its long-standing and self-defeating aversion to organizing women, people of color, and immigrants, the decline continues unabated.

Even if the fightbacks in state capitols and workplaces around the country emerge victorious, a renewal of US organized labor as it currently exists is highly unlikely. The problems that plague the labor movement are structural. They are much deeper than many people in and around the movement want to admit and go to the very heart of the movement’s current institutional configuration. I don’t want to write off the possibility of reviving the actually existing labor movement entirely, but what we are likely witnessing is the death throes of an old movement rather than the birth pangs of a new one.

In his excellent new(ish) book Stayin’ Alive, labor historian Jefferson Cowie tells the story of how the organized New Deal working class came undone in that decisive decade. While recognizing the ferocity of capital’s anti-union’s offensive, Cowie argues that the causes of labor’s unraveling were at least as much internally generated as externally imposed. As he makes clear, the New Deal industrial order was a bargain in which labor received some of the benefits of postwar economic growth in return for recognizing capital’s right to retain its management prerogatives. The collective bargaining process became the focus of this order, and as Cowie argues it represented “both sources of power as well as systems of constraint on the future fortunes of the American working class.”

Perhaps the biggest constraint that emerged from the collective bargaining paradigm was the creation of a private welfare state for union members that routed what should have been universalized social goods (health insurance, pensions, vacations, etc.) through participation in the formal labor market. As Cowie bluntly puts it in an interview with Salon at the height of the struggle in Wisconsin, “This system of employer-based benefits is the problem, not the solution.”

As we’ve seen in recent decades, that means the system is vulnerable to piecemeal attack and long-term erosion until there is nothing left. We can turn the entire paradigm on its head: Do people with good benefits see that their future is tied to those who do not have, say, health insurance? Recall the “Cadillac” healthcare controversy [during healthcare reform debate of 2010], in which those with good policies, often achieved through collective bargaining, were hesitant to accept any constraints on their policies in order that others might get healthcare. We really need to shift the struggle toward universalism, which also might resonate with the American political tradition of pursuing the interests of “the people” rather than “the workers” as a class.

Pitch perfect, though I’m not entirely comfortable with substituting the language of populism for the language of class. But the problems contributing to organized labor’s long-term decline go beyond the contradictions of collective bargaining. As the recently departed Bob Fitch argued for years (not that many people seemed to listen), the institutional features of unions in the US — compulsory membership, exclusive bargaining, automatic dues checkoff, and the lack of a central labor body with any kind of real power — are what pose the biggest threat to the survival of unions in the US Of all these factors, the last might be most important because it touches on the widely neglected question of scope:

The aim of the Right is always to restrict the scope of class conflict — to bring it down to as low a level as possible. The smaller and more local the political unit, the easier it is to run it oligarchically. Frank Capra’s picture in A Wonderful Life of Bedford Falls under the domination of Mr. Potter illustrates the way small town politics usually works. The aim of conservative urban politics is to create small towns in the big city: the local patronage machines run by the Floyd Flakes and the Pedro Espadas.

The genuine Left, of course, seeks exactly the opposite. Not to democratize the machines from within but to defeat them by extending scope of conflict: breaking down local boundaries; nationalizing and even internationalizing class action and union representation. As political scientist E.E. Schattschneider wrote a generation ago: “The scope of labor conflict is close to the essence of the controversy.” What were the battles about industrial and craft unionism; industry wide bargaining sympathy strikes, he asked, but efforts to determine “Who can get into the fight and who is excluded?”

There is one significant development that makes me more hopeful now than I was at this time last year: the spectacular emergence of the Occupy movement and its orientation toward the struggles of rank-and-file workers. I’m skeptical that the radical and anti-systemic energy that characterizes the movement will help to facilitate a wholesale renovation of the existing unions. But there is a possibility that it will constitute the nucleus of a new political force that can support militant, broadly-based, and non-sectoral organization outside of the institutional framework of the official labor movement, somewhat analogous to the role the Communist Party and other radical formations played during previous worker upsurges in US history.

“We are all leaders” has been one of the battle cries of the Occupy movement, and it was the watchword of the pre-CIO rank-and-file unionism of the early 1930s. The future of the labor movement depends on the rekindling of that spirit.