The United Auto Workers Union suffered a devastating defeat on Friday, when its attempt to organize the workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga failed on a vote of 712-626 (53-47 percent). The company had agreed not to resist the organizing effort and gave the union access to the plant and its workers. If the union couldn’t win an election under those conditions, it is a powerful sign of how weak, indeed toxic, unions have become in recent years. If the UAW couldn’t win this election, it seems doubtful it can win any election.
To be sure, unions have always been weak in the South where all the states in the old Confederacy have right-to-work laws in place. That, of course, is precisely the reason why most plants built by foreign automobile manufacturers in this country in recent years have been built there. (Low taxes and mild winters are two other powerful reasons, of course.)
But they have become increasingly weak everywhere. In the early 1950s union membership in the private sector peaked at about 35 percent of the work force. Today it is about 6 percent. Manufacturing, the heart and soul of the union movement, has become much more efficient, and therefore less labor-intensive. And much of the unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, such as in garment manufacturing, have moved offshore. The UAW membership peaked at 1.5 million in the 1970s. Today it is 338,000.
Only in the public sector, which should never have been made subject to collective bargaining under the Wagner and Taft-Hartley Acts, is union membership increasing. And right-to-work laws are spreading. In 2012 both Indiana and even Michigan—the home of the UAW—became right-to-work states.
But as the American economy has undergone profound change in the last sixty years, labor law has not kept pace. The Wagner Act dates to 1935 and the Taft-Hartley Act to 1947. Like the unions themselves they are dinosaurs. So why do the unions continue to have such a large place in American politics while they have an ever-shrinking place in the American economy? The answer, of course, is the “mother’s milk of politics,” money. Unions are the single biggest source of funds for Democratic causes and candidates.
According to Opensecrets.org, of the top ten political donors in the last 25 years, six are unions. And they all overwhelmingly donated to Democratic causes and candidates. The UAW, for instance, has donated $41.7 million over the last 25 years. That’s well over twice what the infamous Koch brothers have donated, mostly to Republican causes. (The Koch brothers actually gave 8 percent of their money to Democratic causes and candidates.)
Of the UAW’s donations, 71 percent went to Democrats and zero percent went to Republicans. The other 29 percent went to organizations not formally affiliated with either party but it’s a safe bet they are left-leaning. Unions can also mobilize large numbers of “volunteers” for phone banks and get-out-the-vote efforts.
Thus, unions have such a disproportionate influence over the Democratic Party for the simplest of reasons: they buy it. How much longer that will continue is a good question. There is no reason to think that the long-term decline in the private sector will not continue. And in places where union dues are no longer collected by governments (such as in Wisconsin), public sector union members have been leaving in droves. Obviously, they don’t think they have been getting value for their money. That is also a trend that is likely to spread.
The days of the union movement, it seems, are numbered. But it’s not likely to go quietly.