Commentary Magazine


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The Twilight of the Unions

Unions had a really lousy year in 2012. Governor Scott Walker was retained in office despite an all-out union effort to have him recalled. Indiana and Michigan (!) became right-to-work states.

And now the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports in its annual survey that union membership fell by 400,000 last year, despite an increase of 2.4 million in the total number of jobs. Today, only 11.3 percent of the labor force is unionized, the least since 1916, when the rate was 11.2 percent. But that understates the decline because in 1916 only private-sector workers were unionized. Today, just 6.6 percent of the private workforce is unionized. In 1953, about one-third of American workers were union members. It was 25 percent as recently as the 1980s.

Perhaps the most interesting statistic in the BLS report is union membership broken down by age. Of workers 55-64 years of age, 14.9 percent are union members. For those 16-24, a mere 4.2 percent are unionized. That, to put it mildly, does not bode well for the future of the union movement.

The basic reason for this now-60-year-long decline, of course, is that unions are economic dinosaurs. They arose in the late 19th century at the same time as unprecedentedly large industrial and transportation corporations came into being. The corporations had enormous economic and political power and the unorganized workers had virtually none. Unions helped to redress the balance.

With the Wagner Act of 1935, which put the power of the federal government behind the union movement, the golden age of unions began. It didn’t last long. Greatly increased educational opportunities after World War II and the digital revolution that began around 1970 have eroded the number of workers who need unions to bargain for them and the number of jobs available to unskilled and semi-skilled workers.

But the laws governing corporate-union relations had their last major overhaul in 1947 with the Taft-Hartley Act in a completely different economic universe. The unions’ power with the Democratic Party (they are the No. 1 funder of the party and its candidates) has prevented any modernization, giving them disproportionate political clout. But even that is fading. The unions were unable to get “card check,” which would have ended secret elections in union organizing drives, through Congress when the Democrats had a lock on both houses of Congress in the first two years of the Obama administration.

So while unions, like dinosaurs, are still very powerful, like dinosaurs, they are going extinct.