In the last forty years, the power of American labor has plummeted.
In 1983, unions represented 20 percent of American workers. Today it’s half that, and unions are besieged.
We’ve been here before. In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt faced the yawning economic gulf between workers and the top 1 percent—which preceded, but was worsened by, the Great Depression. He determined to give American workers a “more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth.” The Wagner Act vastly strengthened employee bargaining power by giving workers the right to choose their own union free from employer interference.
Four decades of shared prosperity followed. But 1970s America saw two converging economic forces—the decline of unions, and the socially corrosive rise of income inequality.
Economists debate whether—or how—these phenomena are connected. Some attribute our growing disparities to macroeconomic forces: technological change which favored skilled workers over others; globalization which incentivized offshoring jobs; rising interest rates which damaged the manufacturers who provided blue-collar jobs.
But others link the decline of unions with the widening economic inequities which distinguished America from its first-world peers. No other developed Western economy replicated our precipitous decline in union membership and workers covered by collective bargaining. America’s distinctive economic disparities, these economists conclude, owe much to specific political and philosophical choices—including a hostility to organized labor.
Crucial here is the rise of “shareholder capitalism.” Faced with increasing global competition and a flattening stock market, free market philosophes like Milton Friedman argued that a corporation’s sole obligation was to maximize investor returns. Further, they contended, deregulation coupled with fighting unionization, slashing benefits, suppressing wages, and—if necessary—firing workers, would actually widen shared prosperity.
The opposite occurred—but the political and ideological antagonism to protecting workers’ rights persisted. Today our deepening income inequality exceeds that of other G-7 nations; private union membership has reached a lower level than before the Wagner Act; and the foundational purpose of organized labor—the right to bargain collectively over wages, benefits and working conditions—has become anathema to Republican officeholders.
This reflects the GOP’s desire to increase its political power and enhance the leverage of business over labor—including maximizing profit by minimizing wages.
Unions compel corporations to pay higher wages. According to BLS statistics cited by Kenneth Peres, in 2019 union members had weekly earnings over $200 higher than comparable non-union workers—nearly $10,600 per year. Similarly, unionized workers had significantly better access to health and pension benefits.
Unsurprisingly, unions generally support policies opposed by the GOP’s corporate and donor base. These include not only workplace protections, but entitlement programs, expanded health care, paid family leave, and the minimum wage.
As partisan differences sharpened in the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, union campaign contributions increasingly favored Democratic candidates. By hamstringing unions, Republicans found they could widen the disparity between labor and the corporate interests who fund pro-GOP political spending.
A principal Republican weapon is “right-to-work” laws, which prohibit unions from collecting dues from workers covered by collective bargaining—including non-members—in order to gut their finances and diminish their influence. In one fundraising letter cited by Vox, a group allied with the GOP proclaimed: “I believe [our policies] will deal a major blow to the left’s ability to control government at the state and national levels . . . [by] permanently depriving the left from access to millions of dollars in dues extracted from unwilling union members every election cycle.”
It’s working. A 2018 study by three academics showed that state right-to-work laws reduced the Democratic vote in presidential contests by 3.5 percent—with commensurate effects down-ballot. This reflects not only diminished campaign expenditures, but the reduced role of unions in driving voter registration, turnout, and grassroots political activity.
Unfettered employer intimidation of union organizing has further accelerated the decline in membership—and power. As I described in previous columns, Amazon exemplifies widespread corporate tactics used to successfully squelch unionization—spying on employees; holding compulsory anti-union meetings; threatening to close unionized facilities or cut wages and benefits; and firing pro-union members.
In turn, this engenders an injury rate at Amazon facilities more than double the national average. As Jessa Crispin observes in the Guardian, “the gap in pay between [Amazon] executives and its warehouse workers continues to grow. . . . Amazon can get away with it because there is an underclass of insecure workers who rely on even this underpaid, dangerous work to make ends meet.”
In today’s America the richest 1 percent hold more wealth than the bottom 90 percent; the bottom 50 percent have virtually no net worth, and their share of our total wealth has diminished by about 90 percent in the last 30 years. The average CEO of the 350 largest public companies earned $21 million year in 2019—320 times that of their average worker—a disparity ten times larger than in 1978.
This is more than a function of abstract market forces—it reflects 40 years of policy which marginalized unions. In the New York Times, Susan Dynarski cited a study by four economists demonstrating that the decline in union membership has contributed to our widening chasm of income and wealth.
In summary, she reports:
- “Union workers now earn about 20 percent more than nonunion workers in similar jobs.”
- “Since the 1930s . . . the biggest boost from union membership has gone to the least educated workers, who have, in turn, driven the rise and fall of union membership.”
- Finally, “going back to the 1930s, more unions meant more income equality”—including for nonunion workers.
Dynarski concludes: “Incomes in the United States are now as unequal as they were in the 1920s. The gulf between rich and poor will widen if . . . unions are weakened further.”
For some, that would be terrific news. Witness Richard Epstein who tells us in a Hoover Institution newsletter that we should welcome the decline of unions. Neatly sidestepping the prosaic question of decent wages and safe working conditions, he elaborates:
“Unions are monopoly institutions that raise wages through collective bargaining, not productivity improvements.”
“Employers are right to oppose unionization by any means within the law, because any gains for union workers come at the expense of everyone else.”
Happily, “the income share of the top 10 percent rose to about 40 percent [between 1985 and 2000] as union membership fell to below 10 percent.”
Better yet, “employers . . . have become much more adept at resisting unionization in ways that no set of labor laws can capture”—such as building plants “in states like Tennessee and Mississippi” and designing facilities in ways that “make it more difficult to picket or shut down.”
Of course, “none of these defensive maneuvers would be necessary if, as I have long advocated, firms could post notices announcing that they will not hire union members.”
Finally, conservatives who argue that “an increase in union membership is needed to combat job insecurity and economic inequality . . . miss the basic point that the decline of union power is good news, not bad.”
Among the purblind, one presumes, is the noted conservative thinker Oren Cass.
Cass favors extending collective-bargaining rights to virtually all American workers, and establishing sectoral bargaining across industries so that individual employers don’t “compete to see who can squeeze labor the hardest.” Conservatives, Cass contends, increasingly share “a realization that something is going to have to be done to make the economy work better for the typical worker” and “a deepening concern about the state of civil society and community.”
This, I would suggest, better expresses conservatism in the classical sense—the concern with maintaining a healthy political and social organism which animated Edmund Burke.
But partisanship continues to cloud the future of organized labor. Recently, every House Democrat—with only five Republicans—passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (the PRO Act).
The PRO Act, the New York Times reports, would be “the most significant expansion of labor rights since the New Deal.” It limits state right-to-work laws; gives union organizers more control over how and where unionization votes are held; grants them contact information for workers; and prohibits various forms of worker intimidation.
Joe Biden supports it. Unions, he says, “level the playing field. They give you a stronger voice for your health, your safety, higher wages, protections from racial discrimination and sexual harassment. Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union.”
So the evidence suggests. But so long as the filibuster exists unchanged, Senate Republicans will block the PRO Act. Weakening unions, it seems, is of a piece with gerrymandering and voter suppression—tools for maintaining minority role.
That, in the long run, is about more than partisan politics—it’s incompatible with political, economic, and social stability. Biden knows that. And so, one assumes, would Edmund Burke.