The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Do private-sector unions still have a future in the U.S.?

In the latest issue of Democracy, Rich Yeselson has a long and interesting essay considering the decline of private-sector labor unions in the United States and whether they might ever make a comeback.

The piece is way too detailed to summarize in full (which means you should read the whole thing), but I'll draw out three salient points here:

-- Taft-Hartley was the beginning of the end for unions in the private sector. The piece opens with a vivid account of the birth of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, which imposed a series of restrictions on union organizing and activities. Congress passed the bill when labor was at its peak and postwar strikes were rampant: "All in all, about 10 percent of the entire American workforce withheld their labor in 1946."

Scholars have long debated how crucial a role Taft-Hartley played in the decline of private-sector unions in the decades since, as opposed to factors like globalization. Yeselson offers a slightly recast argument here, suggesting that the blizzard of new legal restrictions "bureaucratized labor unions," by forcing them to lawyer up and "drain[ing] the energy and creativity out of the members and their rank-and-file leadership."

-- Labor's recent attempts to launch new organizing drives aren't working. In the last 30 years, as private-sector unions have withered, labor strategists have refocused their energies on creative campaigns to organize workers in fresh territory. The hope was that janitors and hotel maids, say, could make up for losses elsewhere.

Some of these campaigns were quite successful on a small scale — like SEIU's "Justice for Janitors" push. But Yeselson, who worked on many of these efforts, argues that they simply haven't been enough to stop labor's overall decline. One reason, he notes, is that it's simply much harder to organize on a large scale today. When the UAW organized its famous sit-down strike in GM's Flint plant in 1937, there were 47,000 workers at stake. A single Wal-Mart store today might yield about 300 workers.

-- Organized labor tends to expand only at rare points in history, so unions should hunker down and wait for that moment to come along. Labor economist Richard Freeman has argued that labor unions in advanced nations tend to follow a similar pattern. They've only grown during a few rare "spurts" of social upheaval — World War I, the Depression, World War II. But the rest of the time, they usually wilt. Here's what that looks like in the United States:

"Wait for the workers to say they've had enough," Yeselson advises. "When they demand in vast numbers collective solutions to their problems, seize upon that energy and institutionalize it." The big question, of course, is what that moment of social upheaval might look like — or whether anything like the worker unrest in the 1930s is even possible today.

One other thing I'd throw in to this discussion is that there's a fair bit evidence that certain changes to labor law could at least slow that inexorable erosion of union density — even if they can't stop it entirely. One easy way to see this is to compare Canada and the United States over the last 50 years:

That chart comes from a paper by Kris Warner of the Center on Economic and Policy Research. Between the 1920s and 1960s, both countries saw a similar surge in union membership, thanks to the growth of sectors ripe for organizing, like autos. But around 1965, something changed. Union density held steady in Canada but started plummeting in the United States. (Note that this chart is for private- and public-sector unions, but even private-sector density in Canada fell much more gradually.)

Warner argues that labor laws made a huge difference. Until recently, Canada’s rules made it easier for workers in the private sector to form a union. A majority of employees in the workplace simply needed to sign cards indicating their desire to join—a process known as “card check.” In the United States, elections are considerably more difficult.

That said, this second chart doesn't necessarily undermine Yeselson's broader point. For one, Canadian unionization rates in the private sector have been falling since 2000, partly due to the disappearance of manufacturing jobs (though the end of card check in Ontario may have played a role too). That suggests that private-sector unions can face steep challenges even when labor law is fairly favorable.

What's more, as I understand Yeselson's argument, the causation suggested in Warner's paper may be backwards. Favorable labor law only passes when unions are already strong — and rarely happens otherwise. Indeed, back in 2009, when Democrats had big majorities, they didn't pass card check. Unions couldn't create enough pressure to overcome a filibuster. So if the goal is to hope that big changes to labor law will save unions, that could be a very long wait.

Further reading:

--Here's Rich Yeselson's full essay on "Fortress Unionism." Note that he's only focusing on private-sector unions here. Public-employee unions, he says, are a different matter entirely.

-- Was the decline of American unions inevitable? Not if you ask Canada.