Organized labor used to be big in the United States. One out of every three workers was in a union, and manufacturing jobs were the backbone of labor. Today, manufacturing jobs continue to disappear, and unions have been in decline for decades. A lot has changed—but how much of the change has been inevitable? In advance of the Zócalo event “Can the Left Survive Without Labor?” we asked several scholars for their views on the following question: What would it take for organized labor in the U.S. to regain the clout it had 50 years ago?
The sharpening income inequality in the U.S. over the last half-century and the advent of a two-tier service economy have diminished labor’s political voice for poor and working families. At its zenith in the mid-1950s, the labor movement had organized more than 13 million workers—one third of the national labor force. Based in the goods-producing and transport sectors, the labor movement had grown with the manufacturing economy. Beginning in the 1960s, though, labor unions began to decline, displaced by automation, globalization, and the expanding service economy. Today, 80 percent of workers are employed in services, and only eleven percent are unionized.
In today’s polarized service economy, a new labor solidarity rests on the interdependence between high-wage and low-wage service workers: high-wage human services professionals—such as teachers, nurses, and social workers—provide the vital services that sustain millions of poor and working families, many of whom work in low-wage service jobs. Human services professionals and low-wage service workers share a political interest in the expansion of affordable human services.
Labor’s political strength in the 1950s rested on a high level of solidarity between high-wage and low-wage blue-collar workers, reflected in the formation of the AFL-CIO in 1955. The new labor federation had been formed from the merger of the older American Federation of Labor, with its base in high-wage skilled crafts, and the new Congress of Industrial Organizations, with its base among low-wage factory workers.
Today, revitalizing labor depends on uniting the analogous groups of service workers. Human services professionals are already organized into powerful professional associations and traditional labor unions. With their commitment to family well-being, however, they also should support labor organizing drives among low-wage service workers. Political coalitions of high- and low-wage service workers should pursue expansions in human services. Achieving the new labor solidarity will strengthen the labor movement as a progressive force for reducing social inequality and realizing a more inclusive and just society.
The increased militancy and social awareness displayed by unions in recent years will help organized labor regain some clout, but unions cannot reclaim the size or influence that they wielded in the mid-20th century without the renewal of laws protecting workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively.
The unprecedented expansion of organized labor in the 1930s and 1940s was closely linked to the passage and implementation of the National Labor Relations Act, which established a federal policy of “encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining” by ensuring that workers could organize and choose representatives without sanction from their employers. Unions stopped growing after the NLRA was amended in the late 1940s and declined rapidly after enforcement was weakened in the 1970s and 1980s. The exceptions to that rule were public employee unions, which were excluded from the NLRA but granted similar protections through state laws in the 1960s and 1970s. Where those laws did not exist or—as seen recently in Wisconsin—got dismantled, unions found it nearly impossible to survive.
As we saw with the effort to pass the Employee Free Choice Act in 2009, unions cannot respond to this problem simply by pushing for new legal protections. This was also evident in Wisconsin, where collective bargaining rights were successfully associated in the public eye with political patronage and special interests. Unions can overcome public skepticism and hostility only by linking their legislative agenda to a broader vision of social and economic justice and demonstrating that their own power and size is critical to the realization of those objectives. Elements of that dynamic can be seen in the AFL-CIO’s support for immigration reform and the Chicago Teachers Union’s leadership in the fight against school closings, both of which brought unions into alliances with groups that had been ambivalent toward organized labor in the past. Similar alliances helped win support for the laws that aided labor’s growth 50 years ago, and they will be critical to any revival of organized labor in the future.
What would it take for organized labor to regain the clout it had 50 years ago? A miracle. Specifically, a miracle of time travel. We would need to go back in history to a time when American industrial production dominated both America’s internal market and the world’s. Back to 1963, that is. Back to a time before the advent of a fluid, mobile, globalized economy where capital is free to migrate to where labor costs are cheapest. To 1963, again. Back to a time before our maturing postindustrial economy based on high-skill knowledge and low-skill service turned “workers” into independent contractors or fungible components. To a time when governors of blue-collar states like Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin were labor-friendly liberals or moderates broadly sympathetic to public sector unions, before they became red-state Republicans determined to roll back their collective bargaining rights. And generally, back to a time when we were close enough chronologically to the labor movement’s monumental struggles for worker dignity and security in the 1930s and 1940s to regard unions as integral parts of our national cultural fabric. Back, indeed, to 1963.
But 1963, like the industrial jobs that John McCain famously spoke about during his 2008 presidential run, is “not coming back.” Americans live today in a postindustrial, globalized, union-unfriendly world a galaxy away from 1963. The only way we are going back there is through a time-travel device worthy of Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd in the film Back to the Future. In other words, a miracle.
No question about it: labor is on the ropes. Union membership in the private sector is down to 7 percent of the workforce, and unionism in the public sector is under assault. As every champion fighter knows, however, the best defense is a good offense, so it’s useful in times like ours to remember labor’s agenda at moments when it took the offensive.
One such moment came at the 1946 convention of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. In addition to laying plans for organizing the unorganized, some 600 convention delegates unanimously endorsed a wide range of social and political reforms. They called for equal rights and opportunity irrespective of sex, race, color, or creed; for a planned economy designed to maximize employment; for federally funded healthcare; and for free public education from nursery school through college. They demanded that Congress refuse to seat avowed segregationists, that clear-cutting cease in national forests, that military life be democratized to eliminate special privileges for officers, that the government stop stockpiling nuclear weapons and seek an enduring alliance with the Soviet Union. The list of resolutions went on, touching on virtually every aspect of American life.
These ambitions turned out to be short-lived. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 made union organizing more difficult; the Cold War dashed hopes for permanent peace; McCarthyism took aim at the labor movement, and the CIO assumed a defensive posture, expelling its left-wing unions and abandoning the expansive agenda of 1946. Increasingly, the American labor movement saw itself and was seen by others as an advocate for union members, not workers in general or the people as a whole. Over time, insularity deprived the movement of allies and undercut its clout.
To regain momentum, labor needs to enlarge its agenda. Organizing the unemployed; making common cause with struggles to preserve public schools and defend undocumented immigrants; speaking out against militarism abroad and the prison-industrial complex at home—these are some of the ways the labor movement can re-establish itself as the nation’s primary champion of the common good. That tradition’s revival would benefit not just unions but one and all.
Is there is a path for organized labor in America to regain the clout it had a half century ago, when a solid third of workers were union members? To answer it helps to understand what exactly happened during these years. The evidence suggests that the main reason for labor’s decline is political, and thus any pathway to labor revitalization would entail rewriting the rules of the game.
Many argue that American culture has progressed beyond unions. Workers today think of themselves as free agents and of unions as an outdated institution. Young techies on their smartphones have no interest in being represented by cigar-munching union bosses—or so the thinking goes. But surveys show that the majority of Americans support labor unions and that a far higher proportion of workers would like to be represented than are represented.
Others argue that transformations in the economy have undermined unions. Globalization allows companies to relocate from unionized to nonunionized areas, while the switch from manufacturing to service has dampened workers’ bargaining power—or so the thinking goes. But if this were the primary explanation, we’d expect to find that unionization rates have declined across all industrial societies. In fact, cross-national data show tremendous variation. Unionization rates in Canada and in many countries of Europe have remained relatively stable, while the U.S. is an outlier in terms of how sharply rates have declined.
Rather than changes in the culture or economy, it has been a sustained political assault upon organized labor that has led to its decline. Since the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act amended the National Labor Relations Act to limit workers’ right to strike, federal labor policy has grown increasingly hostile to unions. Federalism in turn has allowed business interests to implement “right to work” policies at the state level, even in traditional labor strongholds such as Michigan. Compared to a half-century ago, workers today face immense obstacles when they attempt to form and sustain unions.
The fact that no significant pro-labor legislation has passed during the Obama presidency does not bode well for organized labor in America. Recent grassroots efforts to organize fast-food workers represent a bold move; so too does the AFL-CIO’s new strategy to bring nonunion members into the federation. But such moves, however bold, will achieve limited success as long as the deck is stacked against workers and their unions.
There are two roads that lead toward a genuine revival of the American trade union movement. And when I say “revival” I mean not just a larger set of unions with more members, but rather a labor bloc, social and demographic, that is on the offensive, setting the economic and social agenda on multiple fronts.
The first road would look something like what transpired on May 1, 2006, when during the massive “Day Without Immigrants” demonstrations millions of Latinos and supporters shut down scores of food processing plants, restaurants, vineyards, and transport hubs, in what was, in effect, a general strike. In its early hopeful stages, the Arab spring looked something like this, and had Occupy been a dozen times larger it might have become a de facto sit-in that paralyzed urban financial hubs. We’ve had such mass upheavals in the more distant American past: in the industrial cities of the Midwest during the height of the 1936 and 1937 sit-down strikes; and in the era of hospital, teacher, and sanitation worker militancy in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In such moments of controlled chaos, those who have long opposed unionism and worker empowerment rush to offer concessions, if only to avoid something more radical or destabilizing. Smart labor leaders, like John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther in the late 1930s or Jerry Wurf and Leon Davis in the 1960s, first champion this turbulent insurgency and then channel it into a set of well-consolidated laws, institutions, and bargaining arrangements that can last a generation or more. Brilliant and charismatic leaders, like Cesar Chavez, who fail to institutionalize such genuine but momentary militancy, are destined to become tragic figures.
The problem with this first road forward is that it is so hard to plan or predict. Will mass mobilization begin next year, next decade, or never? Both the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers have done great work in organizing and encouraging the voices and protests of unorganized, low-wage workers, but thus far they have not sparked the kind of human chain-reaction that would actually make executives at McDonald’s and Wal-Mart so fearful that they might be ready to pick up the phone and say “let’s make a deal.”
So we are left, for the present, with a second road forward. Here the union movement relies upon what now seems an inexorable drift to the left in American electoral politics. This has been obscured by Republican obstructionism in Congress, but the cultural and demographic revolutions that have liberated gays, made Latinos a decisive voting bloc, elevated an African-American to the presidency, and made the Republicans hegemonic only among those white people who live in the states that once composed the old Confederacy seem to insure that the Democrats, even liberal Democrats, are going to be the natural ruling party for the next generation.
The task before organized labor is to make sure that this Democratic hegemony extends to working people, and not just in terms of an anti-poverty agenda or better health care, but in terms of their capacity to build institutional power, i.e. organize new workers into trade unions and then give those unions the freedom to press forward their economic and political agenda.
The decision to open up the recent AFL-CIO convention to a wide array of liberal groups is a symbolic step in this direction; more important will be the kind of organizing, political as well as trade union, that puts Democrats on the spot so that as the party’s tide covers more political terrain, labor’s organizational interests are not left as flotsam on the beach. We still need a progressive labor law and an administration of that law—one that works for working people and makes it possible for individuals to join unions without being “working-class heroes.”
Conservatives know this, perhaps even more than laborites, which is why they have made the evisceration of the National Labor Relations Board such a high priority. The sit-down strikes and great expansion of trade unionism in the 1930s came after the passage of the Wagner Act; likewise the rise of unionism in most hospitals and public schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s also came after either the federal government and the states liberalized collective bargaining in these institutions.
So a progressive labor law is still important: organized labor—and Democrats who are union partisans and supporters—have to make sure that contemporary liberalism once again is defined by that muscular mid-20th-century phrase “labor-liberalism.”