The labor movement has historically been the most effective representative of working-class interests. The short list of labor’s achievements include ending child labor; establishing the eight-hour day and minimum and “living” wages, unemployment insurance and workers compensation, occupational safety and health standards; securing health care, sick leave, vacations and pensions; and helping create legislation to outlaw job discrimination against women, minorities, disabled persons, and older workers.
Union members receive 15% more wages on average than non-union workers, are 19% more likely to have health insurance, and are 24% more likely to have an employer sponsored pension. Despite the clear correlation between overall compensation and union membership, a recent report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research shows that union membership has dropped in most states. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 12.3% of wage and salary workers belong to labor organizations. This amounts to drop of almost 9% over the last 25 years. The greatest declines in unionization rates have occurred in private sector and non-agricultural employment, including manufacturing and construction.
The decline is significant enough that it is undermining the labor movement’s ability to advance the interests of working people. The real strength of the labor movement has now moved to the public sector; public employees now constitute more than half of all union members. Perhaps because they now dominate the labor movement, public sector unionists have come under attack recently, and some expect membership levels to drop as a result of the current economic crisis, as schools, cities, and other public employers cut the work force in response to declining tax revenues.
Union membership has declined for a number of reasons, including globalization, changes in workplace organization (ie. subcontracting, offshoring, lean production), the growing proportion of part-time and contingent jobs, employer hostility, legal and political opposition to labor unions, and the ineffectiveness of business unionism to provide improvements in wages and benefits.
Overall public support for labor unions has also declined. The Pew Center for the People and Press found recently that favorability ratings have fallen sharply in recent years. While 58% of those polled in January 2007 viewed unions favorably, by 2010 only 41% held that view. Negative views increased, from 31% in 2007 to 42% by 2010. Importantly, the Pew study found declines in union favorability occurred at similar rates across most demographic groups. Further, a recent Gallup poll found that 51% feel that unions hurt the general economy more than they help it. Only 39% saw unions as favorable to the economy.
While the labor movement remains vocal and active on the political front, declining numbers and shrinking public support are undermining labor’s influence within the Democratic Party, which has historically relied on organized labor as the core of its support. In the past two years, almost every political initiative by organized labor, from support for a public option in health care to labor law reform to simply naming of new members to the National Labor Relations Board has been all but ignored or put on the back burner. In turn, labor support for the Democratic Party has become lukewarm and fragmented at best.
What will the Democratic Party look like without the labor movement at its center? Two visiting international scholars at the Center for Working-Class Studies believe that it will come to resemble comparable political parties in the UK and Germany. Sociologist James Rhodes suggests that like the British Labor Party, Democrats will abandon organized labor and working-class issues. Geographer Eva Viertlböck thinks that, like the German Social Democratic Party, the Democratic Party will break apart as labor unionists and former working- and middle-class supporters move to the ends of the political spectrum. Michael Lind, writing for Salon, sees something similar. He suggests that labor unions are unlikely to regain their position at the heart of liberal politics. Instead, he believes that liberal interest groups and social elites using new technology will replace unions as the new core of liberal politics and the Democratic Party. That is, the Democrats will become a party that practices the “politics of charity” instead of the “politics of solidarity.”
None of this bodes well for working people. Despite attempts by organized labor to organize the unorganized both politically and institutionally, working people are looking elsewhere for agency and voice. In some cases, they are supporting groups that seem antithetical to their needs but capture their anger. In the last year, one of the questions I was asked most frequently by reporters is “Does the working class support the Tea Party Movement?” While it is difficult to determine how actively working-class people are involved, it is clear that some do support the movement, and that support may be growing.
Given the demographic declines and shifting political landscape, the labor movement needs to become more closely aligned with various social and economic justice movements. These groups share with organized labor the growing sense of economic vulnerability, frustration with government, and the shredding of the nation’s social safety net. Labor unions must move beyond workplaces issues, openly support the interests of all working people, and engage in community organizing on both local and regional levels. Put differently, it must refocus its energy and mission and return to its traditional role of advocating for all working people.
John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies