More than 50 years ago, labor unions in the United States appeared to be well established and strong. For instance, during World War II, there was a tremendous increase in union membership from nine million to over fourteen million. In 1945, labor unions won 82.9% of the near five thousand National Labor Relations Board bargaining elections involving over one million workers (Goldfield, 1989). The strength of the unions was so great that many capitalists considered themselves lucky to gain some measure of class peace by providing substantial wage increases and new fringe benefits. In the present day, the opposite is happening. Labor unions have declined considerably, and the number of union members declined from over 34% of the labor force to below 20%. Despite the growing weakness of the unions, the public does not show much sympathy for the plight of these unions. Rather, they are still regarded as too powerful and untrustworthy. This essay will discuss the dimensions of this sector’s decline, how this decline has contributed to the precarious and low-wage labor, and whether the erosion is reversible.
The decline of labor unions in the United States can be viewed in various dimensions such as electoral, political, and social perspectives. Labor unions have had a significant impact on the elections and their turnout over the past. For instance, in the periods around 1945 when membership was significantly high, the support by the unions had a significant impact. At one point, Richard Frankenstein, who was the first vice-president of United Auto Workers was close to being elected the mayor of Detroit despite negative publicity by newspapers and other companies(Goldfield, 1989). The most common route to representation is through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In the early 1950s, the total number of employee units voting for union representation in NLRB elections averaged 554,100 yearly. The decline in the union has led to the reduction in the number of workers organized under NLRB. Today, the equivalent success of unions would require units totaling 1.1 million workers annually to win elections. The reduced number of representations reflects a reduced number of units that the employees are organized into that determines the number of votes. This concludes that a decline of labor unions has a negative impact on electoral representation.
Politically, labor unions have similar impacts as those expressed in the electoral sphere. The contribution of labor unions is not only in regard to numbers but also in financing political campaigns. For instance, in the 2008 election cycle, labor organizations donated approximately $76 million and some $141 million in the 2012 election. This means that the representation that the labor unions support benefits from this support. For instance, 90% of the funding mentioned above went to the Democrats. Apart from donations, labor unions can declare their support in terms of votes and support a certain party. Historically, voter support from labor unions has proved influential in determining the turnout of political elections. As such, the massive decline of the labor unions has a direct impact on the way things turn out in the political arena.
The decline of the labor unions is also felt in a social dimension. Socially, labor unions bring workers together as well as their employers under the same agreements of the contract. They also have a significant influence on the wages the workers receive from their employers. These wages determine the kind of lifestyle these families lead in terms of housing, education, healthcare, and food. Historically, when labor unions had huge memberships and power, the social aspect of their members was of the standard since they could advocate for better working conditions. Today, the rate of precarious work and low-waged labor has taken over directly affecting the social aspect of workers. The decline of labor unions has, therefore, been a predicament for the workers.
One of the major effects of the decline of labor unions has been the increased rise of precarious and low-wage labor. Employment relations have become increasingly precarious, uncertain, risky, and insecure. This has resulted in anxiety and inequality in employment affecting not only how work is experienced, but also ways of bearing risks and conducting business by families and communities. Although the precariousness of the employment industry is a result of many factors including globalization and technological change, failure by the labor unions plays a significant role in terms of re-regulation of the labor market and the removal of institutional protections(Silver, 2003). It has always been the duty of the labor unions to push for standard jobs that offer certainty, security, and bear fewer risks on the side of the employee to remove the anxiety and inequality associated with the precarious jobs in the market. The factors leading to the emergence of precarious labor brought about a shift that transferred power from the employees to the hands of the employers such that the latter now controls the labor market to a great extent. The role of labor unions in such scenarios would be to bring back power to the employees such that they can demand better working terms. The decline of labor unions means that there are few advocators for the rights of the employee and as such, employers are at liberty to dictate rules to the employees.
Low-waged labor is also prevalent and in most cases goes hand in hand with precarious. Low wages have been connected to the increased number of immigrants in the country who have flooded the labor markets and provided cheap labor. While this could be one of the factors for the rise of low-wage jobs, the decline of labor unions has made it possible for this trend to be propagated by employers(LaLonde,& Meltzer, 1991). Since there are many people in desperate need of jobs, employers can take advantage of the situation and pay low wages since the job-seekers have no other alternative but to take the job. Labor unions are supposed to be the voice for employees, especially those who are exploited. The unions can do this by pushing for better pay that fits the kind of work that these individuals are assigned. Also, they can also call for industrial action such as a go-slow or a strike to demand better treatment. This can only happen if members are registered with the unions. However, with the reductions in the state of union membership presently, it becomes considerably difficult to curb the problem of low wages in the country.
The labor unions in the United States are presently in a crisis. In the 1950s, a third of the American population belonged to a labor union. Today, only 10.7% of the population are members of a union(Fletcher & Gapasin, 2008). This has been a major cause of the inequality in the country as well as the cratering of the voter turnout among low-income workers. It has also weakened the ability of the labor unions to have corporate influence in DC and other state capitals. According to some activists and scholars, the future for traditional unions is bleak, and they arrived at a conclusion that the United States model is dead and cannot be revived. An alternative would be to create a national or industry-wide approach to replace or supplement the traditional model of individual workplace-level organizing. The solution would also be in looking at strategies that have been working for countries abroad and adopting them. A majority of the European countries such as Denmark, Finland, and Sweden have far greater levels of union coverage than the United States. The US can, therefore, borrow a leaf from these countries in the renovation of its labor unions. They can also register workers in collective bargaining contracts which can act as an alternative for the labor unions. For instance, in Austria and France, only a small number of the workers are in labor unions. Rather, 98% of the workers are in collective bargaining contracts.
Since the elections of 2016, both the Democratic Party and liberals have increasingly embraced various European tax and spending policies, from single-payer health care to tuition-free college. Recently, the Center for American Progress (CAP), one of the most influential think tanks in Washington proposed a big idea for raising the wages for the American people. The board calls for the creation of national wage boards with the responsibility of setting minimum wage and benefit standards for specific industries. The boards/bargaining panels would be comprised of representative members of the employers, workers, and the government. The employers would choose their representatives through the employers’ industry associations, and the government representative was suggested to be the US secretary of labor or their delegate. Collective bargaining is the target as the substitute of unions. According to Madland of CAP, the secretary of labor should create separate boards for different industries and occupations which should work with unions and other worker groups to enforce wage rules upon their adoption.
According to Larry Mishel, the president of EPI in a Washington Post, collective bargaining should occur by sector and not firm. For instance, a design that allows having collective bargaining rights as restaurant workers rather than where they acquire those rights one restaurant at a time. Another reporter noted there also is the need to establish substantial penalties for violating labor laws especially for employers who choose to fire workers who intend to form unions. This seems to be the new viable solution to the problem of the erosion of labor unions. The revival of labor unions seems to be bleak and it may be difficult to reinstate them the way they are but they can be substituted by collective bargaining by the various boards formed from different working sectors.
In conclusion, the decline of labor unions in the United States has had a significant impact on the various sectors of the system such as the electoral, political, and social dimensions. It has also resulted in the rise of precarious work and low-waged labor which has negatively affected workers. The traditional form of labor unions is on the bleak and may not be revived, but alternatives such as collective bargaining can be adopted as a supplement or replacement for the labor unions.
Fletcher Jr, B., & Gapasin, F. (2008). Solidarity divided: The crisis in organized labor and a new path toward social justice. Univ of California Press.
Goldfield, M. (1989). The decline of organized labor in the United States. University of Chicago Press.
LaLonde, R. J., & Meltzer, B. D. (1991). Hard times for unions: another look at the significance of employer illegalities. The University of Chicago Law Review, 58(3), 953-1014.
Silver, B. J. (2003). Forces of labor: workers' movements and globalization since 1870. Cambridge University Press.
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