America Without Unions

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

 The recent defeat of its effort to unionize workers at Volkwagen’s Chattanooga, Tennessee factory was a crushing blow to the United Auto Workers, and a setback to the embattled U.S. labor movement, which could have used the morale boost of a high-profile victory.

It was also a big loss for the vast majority of Americans who must work for a living, whether they are union members or not. Without a large robust unionized sector, there is little hope that the relentless spread of low-wage work, job insecurity and economic inequality will be reversed.

Labor unions were key to the post-World War II social contract under which the benefits of economic growth were broadly shared. Collective bargaining agreements set industry-wide standards for wages and working conditions, which put pressure on nonunion firms to keep up or face union organizing drives. Politically, unions were the most important force supporting Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation, overtime, job safety, progressive taxes and full employment policies that promoted prosperity far beyond their membership.

But as part of the rightward shift in our politics of the last three decades, business unleashed a relentless political and propaganda campaign aimed at destroying collective bargaining in America. Since 1979, the number of union members has dropped by a third. As a share of the labor force, union membership is at its lowest level since 1916.

It is no accident that as union strength declined, the social contract in America was systematically shredded. Yes, globalization and technology have changed the economy. But as labor weakened, both politically and on the job, business interests have been able to wring the benefits from these changes and shift the costs to workers.

Today, a chorus of political leaders and pundits express shock at the upward redistribution of income and wealth. Yet they have remained indifferent, if not hostile, to labor law reform that might rebalance the scales of economic power now so heavily tilted in favor those who own capital and against those who provide the work.

A common rationale for this indifference is the claim that although unions were once important, they are no longer necessary. This is a bizarre notion given the gilded age of inequality in which we find ourselves. Are capitalists less greedy? Are bosses more generous and humane? Are corporations no longer obsessed with squeezing labor costs? Can you trust politicians to maintain worker protections when they rely on the investor class to finance their campaigns?

So what will America look like if these “no longer necessary” unions disappear?

A non-union America will be of course a low-wage America. Most people will work harder for less. Employer contributions to pensions and health care will be a thing of the past. No longer even remotely threatened with organized resistance, employers will make “on-call” contingent work the norm. People will spend their working lives patching together a marginal income with constantly changing temporary and part time jobs- with the predictable increase in personal and family stress. Few workers will have vacations and paid sick-days, and even fewer a forty-hour week. Unions, after all, are the people that brought us the weekend.

Employer-employee relations will increasingly resemble what they were before the New Deal. Laws against discrimination and employee protection may remain on the books, but without pressure from unions they will be harder to enforce. The humiliations of working life under raw capitalism will reappear: abusive supervisors, dirty and unsafe workplaces, being ordered about like a child, daily assaults on one’s dignity, impossible demands, speed-ups, wage theft by employers.

More people will get their jobs through employment contractors, making it even harder to identify who is responsible for abuse of employees. Was it the company at whose office you worked? The agency that had the contract to supply labor? Or the subcontractor who actually sent you there?

These conditions will rise up the ladder of skills and education. The entry wage of college graduates, which have been declining for over a decade, will drop faster. Desperate young people will keep borrowing for education, piling up enormous debts that cannot be paid off with the salaries that are available. Indebted but still hopeful 20-somethings will turn into embittered 30 and 40 year olds.

Class lines will harden. The tutored, traveled and connected children of the rich will be even more advantaged. As extended non-paying internships become the portal to professional jobs, those jobs will go to young people who parents can afford to subsidize them.

Without unions there will be little counterweight to the campaign financing from corporations and rich conservatives, other than the small number of affluent liberals, who are generally more interested in social and cultural, than in economic, issues

As a result, Wall Street will dominate national and state economic policy even more. Fiscal austerity will be the permanent macroeconomic policy of both parties, guaranteeing that the demand for labor will remain below levels that might increase wages. Deregulation, privatization and trade agreements will put more downward pressure on labor’s share of productivity gains.

The generational conflict that pervaded life on the job in pre-New Deal America will return. Older workers, fearful of losing their jobs, will be less likely to share knowledge and experience with younger people. Politically, it will be easier for the Right to stir up resentment among the young against Social Security and other benefits to the elderly. And as retirement sails out of reach, more older people will remain in the labor force, further increasing job competition among age groups.

Finally, the consequences of the demise of labor unions will go far beyond paychecks and policies. Unions have not always lived up to their ideals, but they embody the values of solidarity, fairness and mutual self-help that undergird a decent society, and which are being elbowed aside in a culture that idolizes the egocentric, hyper-greedy worship of self. Let unionism’s ethos of solidarity disappear and Americans will find themselves tossed back to a time when the workplace was a war of all against all — and life on the job was brutal, feral and merciless.

Is this the future we want?


  • TheBrett

    Collective bargaining agreements set industry-wide standards for wages and working conditions, which put pressure on nonunion firms to keep up or face union organizing drives

    In particular sectors they did, but I don’t know much of the overall gains you can attribute to the unions themselves, particularly since their bread-and-butter (manufacturing) was in decline as a percentage of the US overall economy – and unions themselves were declining after 1954. Plus the period in question was one of consistently decent-to-good growth, which pushes up demand and tightens labor markets (possibly even more so than it would now because the Postwar Period had social limitations on female and minority labor force participation along with serious immigration barriers).

    A common rationale for this indifference is the claim that although unions were once important, they are no longer necessary. This is a bizarre notion given the gilded age of inequality in which we find ourselves. Are capitalists less greedy? Are bosses more generous and humane? Are corporations no longer obsessed with squeezing labor costs? Can you trust politicians to maintain worker protections when they rely on the investor class to finance their campaigns?

    It’s more than unions as they were don’t work as well anymore outside of particular sectors, and even then they’re under huge pressure (one of the few unions that’s growing, SEIU, tends to work with employers). It’s easier to organize industries when they have high profit margins and weak competition except with other unionized firms under the same rules.

    But that’s always been a problem with unions. They responded to real problems with the wrong solution: trying to tie workers tighter together with their firms, so that the firms would be less able to treat them as disposable. But that also made them much more vulnerable to disruption – a better strategy would be to take notes from the trades unions and professional organizations, and try to both increase worker exit power, help push back against labor law violations, and push for economy- and sector-wide rules.

    If you really want to go far back, you could attribute that to the success of the AFL approach over the Knights of Labor approach, which brought short-term success but long-term failure when the greater society was no longer supportive of unionization.

  • Chuck Flacks

    Robert Reich, in his film and frequent essays has tracked a near one-to-one correspondence between rising inequality and unions’ decline. I doubt this is a coincidence and I applaud your courageous defense of unions. The problem is that unions, in their rigid demands for the status quo, their lack of strong organizing in the service industry, and their history of corruption, have not done themselves any favors. On the other hand, the lack of enforcement of laws protecting collective bargaining and organizing rights has deeply undermined unions’ ability to function.

  • dwb1

    Corporate profits are now dominated by software makers. Non-union software engineers make 6 figures. Unions may have made sense when the economy was dominated by oligopolies like the big three automakers, but that is no longer the case. Unions pushed companies like GM into uncompetitive positions which ultimately caused bankruptcy. People do not need unions to make 6 figures, just the motivation to get a college degree in something technical.

    Now that the drug war is ending, municipal unions will see a decline as well. Cities can no longer afford the fiscal squeeze put on them by the drug war and unions. Many are switching pensions to defined contribution plans, renegotiating pensions (like IL, NY) or outright declaring bankruptcy like Detroit

    Unions are dead. The left needs new ideas, because like the horse and buggy they are not coming back.

  • DamnedLiberal

    Labor unions once fought hard for workers. Now, as illustrated by Detroit’s two-tier wage schedule and the union’s acceptance of temp workers, that is no longer the case. We can thank “free trade” agreements, globalized labor, off-shored profits, and the influence of corporations and the plutocrats on government. The labor movement has been out-maneuvered and neutered.

  • Derek Groves

    One of the biggest problems was fostered by the North American Unions themselves! At a time when they had become a powerhouse they flexed their collective muscle and grew their own fortunes What they should have done was organize the workers in the Third World countries. That would have resulted in a level playing field globally. Now because they don’t have a level playing field not only are the jobs going to the Third World but the investment money are following. Check with your Union and your pension fund ; find out where their Billions are invested… You’ll be surprised !

  • The_Turtle

    The war against unions really began 60 years ago. Some, not all, anti-union sentiment was the fault of big unions’ bosses, union arrogance, and union disregard for the worker, thus alienating their own.

    For example, the railroads, in converting from steam engines to diesel engines, no longer needed firemen on board but were required to have them “feather-bedded” in. Decades later, computers replaced typesetters and the unions called for strikes.

    I don’t want to see a world without unions