The Decline Of Unions In The US: Trouble For Both Democrats And The Working Class
Unions’ Downward Spiral
Donald Trump’s insult aimed at Chuck Jones, President of the United Steelworkers 1999, was more than just another Trump tweet. Rather, it was a verbal confirmation of the treatment labor unions have been receiving from the US government for quite some time: that is, hostility and outright rejection. Unions have seen their membership and clout diminished for decades, eroding a crucial source of support for the Democratic Party. This allowed Donald Trump to claim rustbelt states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin for the Republican party for the first time since 1992. But what caused union to lose so much popularity in the US? And what does this mean for the future of working class families?
The fall of unions has been a slow and steady one, but is rooted in a history of hostile government action, almost unilaterally by the right. After WWII, Republicans, wary of both the legacy of the New Deal and the notion of organized labor taking on a Communist streak, sought to curb the power of unions’ ability to organize. In 1947, Republicans passed the Taft-Hartley Act, leaving it up to the states to decide whether to outlaw arrangements compelling workers to unionize and pay union dues. States that outlawed such arrangements did so via statutes known as right to work laws.
Despite these laws, union membership remained steady until the 1970’s, when it began to drop. Some of this decline was due to economic factors. The manufacturing sector as a whole started to decline during this time as a result of the automation of certain jobs as well as the shift to a service-oriented economy. The latter was particularly problematic for unions, as service workers’ jobs are more temporal, contract oriented, and more easily filled by their nature, all of which makes them harder to unionize. A rapidly globalizing economy provided further challenges. Raymond Hogler, management professor at Colorado State University, attributes the true beginning of labor union decline in the US to the defeat of the Labor Reform Act of 1978, which sought to modernize unions in order to adapt to such challenges.
Since then, the union membership rate has almost halved, to only just over 11 percent of workers currently belonging to unions (this graphic by NPR shows the state by state decline). 26 states have now passed right to work laws (maps below). Most did so immediately after the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, but four- West Virginia; Indiana; and, crucially, Wisconsin and Michigan- did so within the last four years. More states might be added to that list, with Republican-controlled legislatures in states like Kentucky, Missouri, and New Hampshire aiming to do so there. President-elect Trump has championed right to work laws, appointing anti-union fast food company executive Andy Puzder as Labor Secretary, and can appoint a Supreme Court justice to further curb unions via a right to work law at the national level.
Right to Work Laws: Good for Businesses, Not So for Workers
Right to work laws are championed as guarantees of individual freedoms by the right, claiming compelling union membership goes against the rights of citizens to choose whether or not to support them. In practice, right to work laws inhibit the ability of unions to both uphold the rights of workers and guarantee they receive adequate wages and benefits. When workers opt out of membership and dues payments, it creates a strain on unions to provide services such as ensuring workplace safety, as well as to advocate on behalf of workers for better wages and benefits through collective bargaining. They must often raise dues on existing members, who then may also opt out, creating a downward cycle.
Right to work advocates dismiss such concerns, castigating unions as a strain on employees. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation even claims that workers in right to work states are better off, enjoying a higher standard of living, after-tax income, and purchasing power.
Except they don’t. A study by the Economic Policy Institute found that workers in right to work states receive wages that are 12.7 percent lower than in non-right to work states. The maps below provide a side by side look of right to work states and median household incomes by state:
Out of the 26 right to work states, 20 have a median household income below $55,000. Only one- Virginia, buoyed by the high wages of workers in the affluent Washington, DC area- boasts an income level above $65,000. A similar pattern can be seen when looking at state minimum wages. The AFL-CIO also finds that states with right to work laws have lower rates of health insurance coverage and higher rates of poverty, among other negative measures. Inequality has also risen as union membership has fallen, with the share of income of the top ten percent rising by almost 15 percent during union membership’s steepest decline after 1980.
Ironically, many voters in right to work states championed Donald Trump in November because of their disgust at rising inequality in particular. They may have believed that his slogan to “Make America Great Again” might mean a better standard of living for themselves and their families. If such trends continue, they will be tragically disappointed.