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NYT: Unions Are in “Free Fall”

“Organized labor is in free fall,” writes Eduardo Porter in the New York Times. He’s right. As Porter puts it,

The number of workers who belong to a union has plummeted about 20 percent over the last decade. Only 8 percent of all workers are unionized. And leading labor activists are wringing their hands over the seemingly inevitable death of a movement unable to cope with technological change.

The one bright spot in this gloomy picture is the public sector, where organized labor still claims a healthy 37 percent of all workers, but even there things are looking worse. Scott Walker’s wins in Wisconsin threaten to set off a national fight to rollback public sector unionization, and many cash strapped states and cities are cutting wages and benefits and laying off workers over the objections of union leaders. And union promises of safe pensions are looking shaky; even NPR is running sobering stories about just how weak and poorly secured these vaunted programs really are.

If unions can’t protect you from layoffs and cutbacks, and if they don’t know how to negotiate pension agreements that actually, um, work, public sector workers are going to lose faith.

As one would expect from anything published in the NYT, Porter’s piece looks for reasons for optimism and a way forward for organized labor. He draws an analogy to the 1930s, when organized labor was also on the brink but developed new strategies and reinvented itself in a way that made it relevant to the economic conditions of the time.  If unions wish to stay relevant today, they will need to reinvent themselves to something more suited to the modern work environment.

Porter checked with various economists and experts to get some ideas:

The future labor movement may have to give up organizing work site by work site. Its biggest political fight in the last few years — pushing a law to make it easier to organize a workplace — may be irrelevant. And fighting to create new barriers to foreign competition is probably a lost cause. Instead of negotiating for their members only, unions might do better pulling for better wages and conditions for all workers.

Some scholars, like the economist Richard B. Freeman of the National Bureau of Economic Research, suggest the labor movement could take a page from the AARP’s playbook and become a lobbying group. German-like worker councils could discuss workplace issues with management, without negotiating over pay.

These are radical steps, and large organizations and bureaucracies are notoriously resistant to change. A number of union leaders—as well as a large segment of the political left—have a strong stake in unions remaining as they are. The change may not come from within; organized labor will continue to wither and die, while new forms of association and advocacy grow up on their own.

It’s possible that an AAEP, an American Association of Employed Persons, could be as formidable a force as the AARP and other big lobbies like the National Rifle Association and the American Automobile Association. And such a group could be profitable: think of the credit cards, the insurance products, the discounts and the air miles it could offer. By providing value to members in this way, an AAEP could attract dues paying members much as the AARP does.

Porter’s piece misses another way in which the traditional labor movement has become less relevant. Organized labor works best in a setting where people have jobs for life. If you are a factory worker in an automobile plant, and you have no reasonable prospect of getting promoted into management, your interests are pretty much the same as those of the other people working beside you on the assembly line, and it makes sense to have the same organization represent you.

But in today’s economy, the jobs for life model isn’t as common, and most workers can expect to change jobs and even change industries several times in a career. Rather than having somebody bargain collectively with an employer, many of us need someone more like an agent. That is, we need somebody who knows us, knows our skills and our interests, and looks around for new jobs, new careers, new skills we could acquire that could help us reach our goals.

This looks like one of the jobs of the future: the career development professional who helps people make their career dreams come true and serves as an adviser and advocate as workers and students navigate their way through the complex and shifting economic conditions ahead. For less than workers now pay in union dues. professionals like this could make a bigger difference in both the quantity of your pay and the quality of your work experience.

In any case, the decline of organized labor as we’ve known it doesn’t mean that workers no longer need advocates or that workers are going to be crushed by the overwhelming power of capital. The 21st century economy needs 21st century institutions; the millennial generation has a lot of thinking and building to do.


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  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    Good, the less successful the Labor Gang Monopolies are the more efficient and successful the economy will be.

    Why should the Labor Gangs get monopoly privileges to be the only workers an employer can hire?

    Isn’t nearly everyone else a worker as well?

    How come we don’t have any monopoly privileges?

    Everyone is supposed to be getting treated equally under the law, so why is the Rule of Law being flouted?

    Is it because the Democrats are being bribed by the Labor Gangs?

    Yes it is!

  • Anthony

    John Gardner called it the democratic dilemma or the paradox in democracy. That is, Americans (generally) love the concept of free and fair competition among individuals; but our societal arrangement creates institutional defenses (unions in this instance) to diminish effects of capital competition. What WRM may be advocating for millennials is the insistence on quality and distinction that must be a concomitant of democracy – even more so in shifting economic times. Thinking, building, lifelong learning, and growth vital suggestions to Americans (individuals) going forward as country realigns union-capital nexus.

  • Kenny

    Labor was ‘revived’ in the 1930s by no merit of its own. It came about by the passage of federal legislation,primarily the National Labor Relations Act, which slanted the playing field heavily in the favor of unionization.

  • Worker

    The American Association of Retired Parasites is a perfect model for the future of labor unions. Both seek to live high at the expense of future generations.

  • Casey

    The history of American Labor before the New Deal actually involved exactly these kinds of efforts as their primary activity. The larger and also more radical groups like the wooblies actually spent most of their energy on creating worker co-opts and mutual aid systems.

    They sought to improve the lot of all workers as a class rather than establish a permanent relationship with any one employer as largely exists today. In fact the stated aim of most unions was a world of self-employment.

    This ended first when Wilson suppressed Labor by locking up their leaders and then when Roosevelt, at the urging of many big business leaders co-opted certain of the more conformist unions and their leaders into the governing structure.

    So rather than something wholly new what you propose would actually be a return to the natural course along which things were tending before they were interfered with and corrupted by the state.

  • RebeccaH

    Organized labor had its place in the early 20th century. It’s an anachronism now, because all the protections and rights they won are enshrined in law, and are subject to the votes and opinions of voters, not union members. That’s as it should be. I thank them for their service, and hope they will quietly fade away now (especially the thuggish public sector unions).

  • Jeffersonian

    Why not reorganize in the model of an employment agency, training and selling competent, motivated labor at negotiated rates? The adversarial model is proving unworkable in all but the highest-margin industries, so wny not re-form in the direction of a cooperative, collaborative organization that competes with other providers of labor?

  • John Barker

    ” . . .AAEP, an American Association of Employed Persons”

    I think the organization is correctly called the American Association of Employed People.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @John Barker: hate to punish the interns on Saturday, but this looks right. After all, if it is “persons”, corporations could join.

  • Walter Sobchak

    The Porter article is a mess, because he refuses to state the obvious truth. Labor Unions exist in the form they exist in because the Democrat party willed them into being with the NRA and the Wagner Act. The Wagner Act was tempered by Taft Hartley, but the basic assumptions and structures of unionism remain to this day. The assumption is of class warfare and zero sum economic relations.

    The assumptions are false and misleading. They have killed off a whole series of industries (steel, autos, airlines) and created an atmosphere where most workers would rather have boils than unions.

    Porter, as a columnist, in the house organ of the Democrat party wants to revive unions as a political auxiliary to the Democrat party. I doubt that has an viability at all. Particularly not at a time when the party has told white non college educated men to take a hike.

  • MarkJ

    Interesting irony: Barack Obama, the most pro-union President in U.S. history, is now presiding over the de facto collapse of the American labor movement as we have known it.

    Obama seemingly awakens every day into a world in which it’s still 1935. He’s a perfect illustration of why Progs are, in reality, the real “reactionaries.”

  • Sam L.

    Your AAEP would resemble the AARP is that many of us who were in AARP have seen they don’t represent my issues, just Democrat issues. I’d expect the same of the AAEP, especially if unions are involved.

    And we know how much the U.S. needs another big lobbying organization.

  • Sam Schulz

    Public employee unions = national cancer.

    I’d trade 10 non public AFL-CIO unions for the banning of PEUs.

  • Luke Lea

    Labor, which is to say the people who make their livings with their hands and their feet primarily, need to find new ways to get organized. As their problems are primarily political in nature and are national and international in scale (issues of trade, immigration, income distribution, and taxation) they need organizations to match. Lord knows capital is organized. Why else does unearned income get taxed more lightly than earned income? Why did Nafta and Gatt pass with no steps to address the distributional issues involved? I think a New Labor Party makes sense. What is lacking is leadership.

  • Koblog

    The only thing holding public employee unions together is the mandatory collections of dues extracted from members’ paychecks against their wills to finance politicians bought and paid for with those dues.

    Scott Walker proved that the vaunted popularity of public unions crumbles when indentured members are set free to keep those extracted dues.

    Imagine what the income tax “popularity” would be if mandatory withholding were abolished! Tax reform would be immediate.

  • Ritchie The Riveter

    RebeccaH has hit on something here … we are at the point that workers may no longer need the “training wheels” of organized labor that they needed a century ago, as they moved from farm to factory and our governance moved away from deference to the “robber barons”.

    But if organized labor is going to have any continued viability, it must not only focus on what its leaders can get for their workers, but what their workers are giving back in return … in terms of quality, and efficiency. That means, among other things, that the use of restrictive work rules that trade efficiency for more members (and dues) should not be perpetuated.

  • tom mcguire

    I’ve been a union member for 29 yrs.(I live in ny-no choice). LIFETIME EMPLOYMENT?!!. Hell you can play a game of texas hold ’em w/the # of union cards ive got

  • tom beebe

    “Why else does unearned income get taxed more lightly than earned income?” Perhaps its because that income was already taxed as business income, then as the writer describes, as “unearned income”. Why not do away with all business taxes? After all, if you wish to see where businesses get the money to pay those taxes, you need only to look in the mirror for their only source of income… their customers.

  • teapartydoc

    Somehow this part of the Virginia Declaration of Rights needs to find it’s way into the Constitution: “…no man, or set of men, are entitled to any exclusive or separate emoluments or privileges from the community.” No set-asides, no groups with special government recognition, no government licensing.

  • John Burke

    I’m calling [error] on all of this. Private sector unionism may be in decline for many reasons, but the union leadership long ago stopped doing anything concrete to reverse it. Instead of organizing, labor devotes its resources to electing Democrats and beating the drum for “progressive” causes. The Democrats take them for granted and the causes add no workers to the rolls. This year alone, labor is spending $450 million on elections. Add up all the national, state and local lobbying year round for various causes and it is likely that unions spend $1 billion a year that could be devoted to building memberships. Of course, all this is rationalized by union bosses and top staffers, nearly all of whom never worked in a shop, as necessary because, in perversely twisted logic, organizing doesn’t yield results anyway and unions have to buy clout where they can get it. But a billion dollars worth of organizing might just expand the ranks in which case,the union movement would have the influence that numbers brings.

  • Sundog

    ” ‘ . . .AAEP, an American Association of Employed Persons’

    I think the organization is correctly called the American Association of Employed People.”

    No. The word is “employees.”

  • Sundog

    All labor unions are blatant violations of antitrust law and should be shut down on that basis alone. A union is nothing more than a labor cartel whose purpose is to eliminate competition, establish a monopoly, and engage in price fixing. We have a word for people who do those things: “criminals.”

  • Koblog

    It is manifestly obvious to anyone without blinders on that public employee unions are bankrupting cities and whole states with their ridiculous pensions and benefits. A friend’s father makes more now in retirement than he made as an education administrator.

    California is on the hook for something like $500 billion (one half trillion) in UNFUNDED pension liability for State employees, teachers, prison guards, police and firefighters. The state is already $10-20B in deficit, not counting the even more ridiculous Bullet Train To Nowhere boondoggle that will bring further financial ruin and corruption.

    Besides the declared bankruptcies of Stockton and San Bernardino, soon Los Angeles will be in the same boat: too many fat union contracts and pensions covered with shady financial shuffle that kick the can down the road. The crook mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has stated LA “will not go bankrupt on my watch.” Note he didn’t say LA won’t go bankrupt, only not on his watch… because he’s out of office just before it all falls in.

    Public employee unions have failed us. It is simply impossible to bargain with them when the people paying the future bills — taxpayers — are not at the table. Instead, the unions “negotiate” with politicians they themselves put into office. The inmates are running the asylum.

  • hoosier1234

    You just knew that someday, there would be consequences for the Unions in becoming another arm of the fund-raising efforts of the Democratic Party.

    These consequences are dire — both for Unions and for the American taxpayers who will likely be asked to finance at least a part of the extravagant pension agreements made by irresponsible Unions.

  • Kris

    Casey@5: “Roosevelt, at the urging of many big business leaders co-opted certain of the more conformist unions and their leaders into the governing structure.”

    That’s an interesting model for society. I wonder if anyone has sought to study this model and its relevance or lack thereof to our times.

  • M. Simon

    Labor, which is to say the people who make their livings with their hands and their feet primarily, need to find new ways to get organized.

    And the more organized they get the faster they will be replaced by machines.

  • justaguy

    Just as the laws of the New Deal brought the unions into power, new laws can easily renew that power. Card Check, a law that would have allowed unions to revitalize and consume a much larger portion of the private sector, was one of the Democrat’s priorities. It didn’t get enacted in the 2009-2010 sessions, but it had a viable possibility and large Democrat leadership support. The changes to the NLRB and the Boeing issue show that the Democrats will use law to enforce their system on others.

    The fight for union power is far from over. One small and minor state may have won a few skirmishes, but as long as the corrupt cycle of forced union dues and workers are effective at electing compliant politicians, unions as a form of political oppression will continue.

  • jpintx

    One of the things unions must do to survive is to give value to employers, their customers. Abandon the political model and return to the guild model, so that if I hire a master carpenter from the union hall, he is actually a master carpenter, not a hack. To some extent unions do this, or used to when I had real knowledge of such things, but they really need to focus on providing value to customers, instead of votes to politicians, who after all won’t stay bought.

  • MarkL

    Amazing the Times could write that article about the decline of unions without once using the word “steel.”

  • Allen Mitchum

    Not to be overlooked, private sector unions have significantly less value in the era of big government. Unions are no longer needed to lobby for worker’s rights because most of the possible rights and protections are now enshrined in law. Sub-par working conditions, wage disputes, etc. don’t exist in the way they did in years past, thus private sector unions have less utility now.

  • JMH

    The Porter column is stunningly idiotic. He concludes that Labor leadership has essentially failed at every reasonable job it might have. It’s failed to protect the standard of living of it’s rank and file, failed to provide any reliable retirement plan, and failed to preserve American leadership in the trades it represents.

    So in response to this utter failure, he concludes they should redefine their jobs. No, they should be fired. Kicked to the curb. Given the old heave-ho.

    I’m sure they’d file a grievance.

    Anyway, the NRLB and various pro-union work laws are impediments to fixing the problem. Union leadership has been coopted and is rotten and corrupt. They’re stealing from everybody they can, and doing their [darndest] to make serfs out of their own rank and file.

  • Mark

    There are a variety of things unions can do for their members to become relevant again (and yes, a number of these date back to the Guild era but some of them are directly lifted from the temp help industry) -(i)skill training/apprenticeship programs, (ii) skill certification, (iii) job placement, (iv) health plan for members that follow the individual from job to job in the industry, (v) job sharing arrangements, etc. The concept being that the union would be set up so that the business could hire through the union for positions and they would get people with the appropriate level of skill. For positions requiring master/grandmaster level skill, that craftsman would usually be sold as a package with 1-2 low priced apprentices who have agreed to work at the master/grandmaster’s direction. Once the business is coming to the union/guild with (a) a description of the needed skill level and (b) the wage/salary they are planning to pay, it would be offered to members who have indicated their willingness to take such a job with the most skilled (ok, probably the most senior too) getting the job first. So, the Union then resembles a cross between a temporary employment agency and an old Guild … and employers might not mind having an all union shop as they’ve just outsourced a significant portion of their HR department.

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