WASHINGTON – Are American unions history?
In the wake of labor’s recently defeated effort to recall Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, both pro- and anti-union pundits have opined that unions are in an all-but-irreversible decline.
Privately, a number of my friends and acquaintances in the labor movement have voiced similar sentiments. Most don’t think that decline is irreversible, but few have any idea how labor would come back.
What would America look like without a union movement? That’s not a hard question to answer, because we’re almost at that point. The rate of private-sector unionization has fallen below 7 percent, from a post-World War II high of roughly 40 percent. Already, the economic effects of a union-free America are glaringly apparent: an economically stagnant or downwardly mobile middle class, a steady clawing-back of job-related health and retirement benefits and ever-rising economic inequality.
In the three decades after World War II the United States dominated the global economy, but that’s only one of the two reasons our country became the first to have a middle-class majority. The other is that this was the only time in our history when we had a high degree of unionization. From 1947 through 1972 — the peak years of unionization — productivity increased by 102 percent, and median household income also increased by 102 percent. Thereafter, as the rate of unionization relentlessly fell, a gap opened between the economic benefits flowing from a more productive economy and the incomes of ordinary Americans, so much so that in recent decades, all the gains in productivity — as economists Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon have shown — have gone to the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans. When labor was at its numerical apogee in 1955, the wealthiest 10 percent claimed just 33 percent of the nation’s income. By 2007, with the labor movement greatly diminished, the wealthiest 10 percent claimed 50 percent of the nation’s income.
Today, wages account for the lowest share of both gross domestic product and corporate revenue since World War II ended — and that share continues to shrink. An International Monetary Fund study released in April shows that the portion of GDP going to wages and benefits has declined from 64 percent in 2001 to 58 percent this year.
The survey compared the United States with Europe, where the only other nations in which labor’s share declined were Greece, Spain and Ireland — countries whose economies are at death’s door. Our economy is nowhere near so weak, but as Americans’ ability to collectively bargain has waned, so has their power to keep all corporate revenue from going to top executives and shareholders.
When unions are powerful, they boost the incomes of not only their members but also of nonunion workers in their sector or region. Princeton economist Henry Farber has shown that the wages of a nonunion worker in an industry that is 25 percent unionized are 7.5 percent higher because of that unionization. Today, however, few industries have so high a rate of unionization, and a consequence is that unions can no longer win the kinds of wages and benefits they used to.
Deunionization is just one reason Americans’ incomes have declined, of course; globalization has taken its toll as well. But the declining share of pretax income going to wages is chiefly the result of the weakening of unions, which is the main reason American managers now routinely seek to thwart their workers’ attempts to unionize through legally questionable but economically rewarding tactics (rewarding, that is, for the managers).
The weakening of unions has had a huge political effect as well: the realignment of the white working class. Since the ’60s, exit polls have shown that unionized blue-collar whites vote Democratic at a rate 20 to 30 percent higher than their nonunion counterparts. The decline in union membership has weakened Democrats in such heavily white, increasingly deunionized states as West Virginia and Wisconsin — the main reason Republicans such as Walker have sought to reduce labor’s numbers. Liberals who have been indifferent to unions’ decline will find it difficult to enact progressive legislation in their absence.
Understandably, some liberals are searching for ways to arrest the economic decline of the majority of their fellow Americans in a post-union environment. I fear they’re bound to be frustrated. If workers can’t bargain with their employers, it can’t be done. If and when Big Labor dies — it’s on life support now — America’s big middle class dies with it.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of The American Prospect.