State of the Unions: What Happened to America’s Labor Movement?
Whenever the rate of unionization in America has risen in the past hundred years, the top one per cent’s portion of the national income has tended to shrink......After Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act and other pro-union legislation, a generation of workers shared deeply in the nation’s prosperity. Real wages doubled in the two decades following the Second World War, and, by 1959, Vice-President Richard Nixon was able to boast to Nikita Khrushchev that “the United States comes closest to the ideal of prosperity for all in a classless society.” America’s unions and workers haven’t been faring quite as well lately.
State of the Unions: What Happened to America’s Labor Movement?
What happened to America’s labor movement?
By Caleb Crain, The New Yorker, August 19, 2019
Do you have rights at work? Franklin Delano Roosevelt thought you did. In 1936, while trying to haul America’s economy out of the bog that the free market had driven it into, Roosevelt argued that workers needed to have a say, declaring it unjust that:
a small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor—other people’s lives. For too many of us throughout the land, life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.
For Roosevelt, a system in which bosses could unilaterally decide “the hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor” amounted to “dictatorship.” He hoped that the New Deal would bring workers and managers together in a new form of workplace governance.
New Dealers drew on an idea known as industrial democracy, developed, in the late nineteenth century, by English socialist thinkers who saw workplace rights as analogous to civil rights such as due process and the freedoms of speech and assembly. Senator Robert Wagner, who wrote the National Labor Relations Act of 1935—also known as the Wagner Act—made the point explicitly: “Democracy in industry means fair participation by those who work in the decisions vitally affecting their lives and livelihood.” In their efforts to civilize the workplace, however, Roosevelt and his allies didn’t set up a new institution for workers to speak through. They relied on an existing one: the union.
Whenever the rate of unionization in America has risen in the past hundred years, the top one per cent’s portion of the national income has tended to shrink. After Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act and other pro-union legislation, a generation of workers shared deeply in the nation’s prosperity. Real wages doubled in the two decades following the Second World War, and, by 1959, Vice-President Richard Nixon was able to boast to Nikita Khrushchev that “the United States comes closest to the ideal of prosperity for all in a classless society.”
America’s unions and workers haven’t been faring quite as well lately. Where labor is concerned, recent decades strongly resemble the run-up to the Great Depression. Both periods were marked by extreme concentrations of personal wealth and corporate power. In both, the value created by workers decoupled from the pay they received: during the nineteen-twenties, productivity grew forty-three per cent while wages stagnated; between 1973 and 2016, productivity grew six times faster than compensation. And unions were in decline: between 1920 and 1930, the proportion of union members in the labor force dropped from 12.2 per cent to 7.5 per cent, and, between 1954 and 2018, it fell from thirty-five per cent to 10.5 per cent. In “Beaten Down, Worked Up” (Knopf), a compact, pointed new account of unions in America, Steven Greenhouse, a longtime labor reporter for the Times, writes that “the share of national income going to business profits has climbed to its highest level since World War II, while workers’ share of income (employee compensation, including benefits) has slid to its lowest level since the 1940s.”
“Beaten Down” updates Greenhouse’s book “The Big Squeeze” (2008), in which he portrayed a “broad decline in the status and treatment of American workers,” with such details as fingers chopped off in a yogurt-container factory, stockers locked inside a Sam’s Club overnight, and a Walmart cashier who “menstruated on herself,” as a colleague put it, after being denied bathroom breaks. (The colleague was disciplined for buying the woman sanitary napkins and a washcloth on company time.) “Beaten Down” adds new outrages to the list, including the shuttering of the Web sites Gothamist and DNAinfo by their owner after staff writers unionized, but Greenhouse’s emphasis this time is on remedy rather than indictment. A General Motors employee recalls the union legacy she inherited from her great-grandfather, who participated in a strike at the company in 1936 and 1937 that helped launch the golden age of American labor. “Nobody realizes that all that we have is because of what was done before,” she says. The book is a kind of primer for the woman’s peers, explaining how “the eight-hour workday, employer-backed health coverage, paid vacations, paid sick days, safe workplaces” arose—and what the prospects are for keeping them.
One of the earliest heroes in Greenhouse’s book is a Ukrainian immigrant named Clara Lemlich, a dressmaker and a union organizer, who, in 1909, hopped onstage during a rally at Cooper Union to call, in Yiddish, for a strike against New York’s garment industry. Carried out mostly by women, the strike became known as the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand. At the time, there was little to stop bosses from dialing clocks back to steal time, or from charging employees for the water they drank, but the women won holidays, raises, a shorter workweek, and, at many factories, the recognition of their union, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Among the holdouts was the Triangle Waist Company, which had a factory near Washington Square. In 1911, a bin of cotton scraps there caught fire, and a hundred and forty-six workers died, most of them women and almost half of them teen-agers, trapped because an exit door had been locked to prevent pilfering and unauthorized breaks.
One witness to the disaster was Frances Perkins, the head of the New York Consumers League, whose job involved lobbying against fire hazards, child labor, and overlong hours. “People who had their clothes afire would jump,” she later recalled. Outrage about the fire inspired a reform movement, and Perkins pushed New York legislators to institute a new fire code. By the time Roosevelt was elected governor of New York, in 1928, Perkins was chairing a board that oversaw industrial safety in the state. After the stock market crashed, in 1929, she urged Roosevelt to set up a public-works program, unemployment insurance, and a workers’-compensation program—and he did. When he rose to the White House, a few years later, Roosevelt invited her to be Secretary of Labor; Perkins was the first woman ever named to a Cabinet position. Before accepting, she warned him that she expected the same programs for the whole nation, plus a federal minimum wage, a shorter workday, and pensions.
Does Perkins belong in a history of unions? Greenhouse devotes most of a chapter to her, but she wasn’t a union person. Indeed, union leaders objected to her getting the country’s top labor post, and she herself admitted, “I’d much rather get a law than organize a union.” But perhaps the story of America’s unions can’t be told in isolation from larger stories of politics and governance. The General Motors strike in the thirties probably wouldn’t have prevailed if Roosevelt hadn’t been President, and it might not have even happened without the Wagner Act, which secured the right to unionize and barred employers from firing, blacklisting, or spying on workers who organized. When G.M.’s chairman reneged on a promise to negotiate with the strikers, Perkins was there to call him “a scoundrel and a skunk.” G.M.’s leaders couldn’t figure out how to quash the strike—violence, they worried, might imperil sales—and, to save face, they asked Perkins if Roosevelt could make a personal request that they meet with the workers.
Victory more than quadrupled the auto union’s membership and led to similar wins at Chrysler and Ford, setting a precedent for union contracts that established pay and benefit levels not only in the auto industry but across the manufacturing sector. By the postwar years, it seemed possible that America might realize a dream that Louis Brandeis had described in 1915, a year before he joined the Supreme Court: an industrial economy in which life meant “living not existing.” In the best of all possible worlds, Brandeis believed, every workday would be short enough, calm enough, and safe enough to preserve workers’ “freshness of mind,” allowing them to continue educating themselves throughout adulthood, as citizenship required.
Emily Guendelsberger gives a sense of just how far we are from that dream in “On the Clock” (Little, Brown), a jaunty but dispiriting memoir of her work at three low-rung jobs: at a call center, a McDonald’s, and an Amazon warehouse. At the call center, she finds that her fellow-workers, caught between unpredictable customers and eavesdropping managers, suffer panic attacks so often that the local paramedic asks “Okay, who is it this time?” when he gets out of the ambulance. Chronic stress also predominates during Guendelsberger’s stint at McDonald’s. There are always too many customers waiting in line, and she constantly fears that their impatience may at any moment tip over into rage. Eventually, she realizes that the staffing shortfall has been carefully calibrated: “Understaffing is the new staffing.” The resulting stress, Guendelsberger warns, thwarts “logic, patience, paying attention, resisting temptation, long-term thinking, remembering things, empathy”—in short, all the faculties necessary for responsible citizenship.
At Amazon, a handheld scanner tells Guendelsberger what to do at every moment and tracks her even into the rest room. A training video warns of the work’s physical demands—“This is going to hurt”—and she’s disconcerted that painkillers are dispensed for free. But soon, she writes, “I pop Advil like candy all day.” Her shifts last eleven and a half hours, and she gets home too drained to even think of writing or reading. One day, slumped in front of “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” she finds herself “laughing almost involuntarily” at the realization that “Scrooge literally has a better time-off policy than Amazon.”
What went wrong? The labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, in his influential study “State of the Union,” published in 2002 and updated in 2013, argues that, even in the two golden decades that followed the Second World War, American unions were bargaining from a position of weakness. Manufacturers were fleeing the better-unionized North for the South, in a domestic version of the cost-cutting move now known as “offshoring.” Because unions in America were organized firm by firm, rather than industry by industry, as in Europe, their administrative costs were higher and their energies dispersed. Lichtenstein credits labor’s gains in those years to a willingness to strike rather than to collective bargaining, which he thinks suppressed internal dissent and encouraged people to see unions as serving their members’ self-interest rather than a larger political cause.
Unions fought hard for their members in part because of holes in the New Deal. Roosevelt and Perkins weren’t able to implement a universal health-care system, as they’d hoped, so auto unions wheedled medical benefits out of automakers. The first versions of Social Security and the Wagner Act excluded farmworkers and domestic workers, many of whom were black, because New Dealers needed support from white Southerners. (To this day, the occupations remain outside the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board.)
Despite these exclusions—and despite racist “hate strikes” in the early twentieth century by white union members who objected to black co-workers—black workers joined unions in large numbers after the Second World War. By the nineteen-seventies, they were more likely than any other demographic to be in a union. The Great Migration from the rural South to the urban North had landed many of them in the sorts of low-wage, high-skill, large-firm jobs that were quickest to unionize. But, as the sociologist Jake Rosenfeld has shown, in his book “What Unions No Longer Do” (2014), they joined in even greater numbers than those factors would predict. The quest for workers’ rights ran in parallel with the quest for civil rights. The night before Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s assassination, he spoke in support of a sanitation-worker strike: “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?” A black employee’s wage today is, on average, 16.4 per cent higher if she is in a union, but the wage gap between black workers and white workers remains large and persistent. Rosenfeld suspects that the black community was welcomed in too late to receive the full benefit of unions’ heyday.
Public approval of unions began to fade at the end of the nineteen-fifties. Robert F. Kennedy confronted the Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa during a Senate investigation that exposed corruption, fraud, tax evasion, extortion, beatings, and murder. To hip leftists of the sixties, unions looked stodgily bureaucratic. In 1962, the activist Tom Hayden accused labor of “losing much of the idealism that once made it a driving movement”; at a panel discussion in 1967, Bill Clinton, then an undergraduate, asked George Meany, the head of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., whether collective bargaining was “merely another institution against which man must assert himself.”
Meany supported the Vietnam War, and at the 1968 Democratic National Convention he dismissed protesters who had been beaten by police as “a dirty-necked and dirty-mouthed group of kooks.” Meany, a former plumber from the Bronx, preferred looking after his own to chasing visions of workplace democracy. “Why should we worry about organizing people who do not appear to want to be organized?” he said, in 1972, shrugging off the evangelical spirit. It was Meany who coined the phrase “silent majority” to refer to working-class whites without a college education who felt alienated by anti-establishment disruption and progressive moralizing—and who would be crucial to Nixon’s political victories.
Though a number of these wounds look self-inflicted, Rosenfeld suggests that macroeconomic forces may have made union decline inevitable. In the past four decades, unionization rates have slipped across the developed world. In the nineteen-seventies, America’s manufacturers for the first time faced serious foreign competition, which stripped profit margins and put unionized companies at a disadvantage just when high unemployment was depriving workers of bargaining leverage. Federal deregulation in transportation and telecommunications whittled away profits that unions were hoping to share in. Manufacturing jobs were being replaced by service jobs, which were harder to unionize. And automation was steadily grinding jobs away. The story goes that a Ford executive once asked, as he showed off new robots to a union leader, “How are you going to collect union dues from these guys?” (“How are you going to get them to buy Fords?” the union leader replied.)
Some companies started to factor the cost of breaking the Wagner Act into their budgets. Under the law, any worker fired for supporting a union must be reinstated with back pay, but the company can deduct income he earns elsewhere in the meantime and owes no additional fine. (In some cases, the only penalty is having to admit wrongdoing on a bulletin board.) A 2009 survey found that union supporters were illegally fired at thirty-four per cent of companies where the management opposed a union. Greenhouse interviews a nursing-home employee in Florida who was awarded less than two thousand dollars at the end of a five-and-a-half-year investigation of his unfair firing.
In the 1980 Presidential election, a union of air-traffic controllers bucked tradition and endorsed the Republican candidate, Ronald Reagan. The controllers, who worked for the federal government, were aggrieved about their salaries, whose value had been eroded by inflation, and about the stress they worked under, which President Jimmy Carter’s aviation chief had pooh-poohed as no worse than that of driving a New York City bus. After Reagan took office, they demanded a hefty raise and a four-day workweek. The counteroffer from Reagan’s team was the most generous the federal government had ever extended to a union. Even so, in August, 1981, the controllers walked off the job.
It was illegal for federal workers to strike, though they had got away with it before. Reagan had led a strike himself as the head of the Screen Actors Guild, and, as the governor of California, where it had been illegal for state workers to strike, he had resolved more than a hundred walkouts without punishing strikers. Not this time. “They are in violation of the law,” Reagan told reporters, a few hours after the strike began. His Administration fired more than eleven thousand people, banning them from ever working for the federal government again, and decertified their union, fining it twenty-nine million dollars. Dozens of strikers and union officials were arrested; there were bankruptcies, divorces, and suicides. To return planes to the air, the government hired permanent replacements for the strikers, a tactic that had been legal since a 1938 court ruling but had been considered socially unacceptable.
“Suddenly people realized, Hell, you can beat a union,” the president of a copper mine later recalled. Almost overnight, strikes became scarce. There had been two hundred and eighty-nine large strikes a year, on average, during the nineteen-seventies, but there were only eighty-three a year in the nineteen-eighties. The yearly rate so far this decade is fourteen. After the Second World War, wages were more generous in sectors of the economy with a high rate of strikes, but that’s no longer the case, probably because strikes are more likely to fail. Collective bargaining has become “defensive” and “marginal to the real problems,” Lichtenstein writes. Accordingly, real hourly pay for the average American is lower today than it was in 1973.
In 2008, when the Democrats took the House, the Senate, and the White House, labor leaders hoped that politicians would level the playing field. But Barack Obama’s priority was health care. For decades, Rosenfeld writes, there hasn’t been “even one significant piece of pro-union legislation.” On the contrary, the tide lately has been in the other direction. In 2011, a law proposed by Scott Walker, then the governor of Wisconsin, stripped public-sector unions of most of their bargaining power; Greenhouse interviews the president of a Wisconsin local whose membership dropped from eleven hundred to eighty. Throughout the next half-dozen years, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Kentucky passed so-called right-to-work laws, which make union dues optional and were once common only in former slave states. Since 1961, union members have had the right to decline to fund their union’s political activities, but, in 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that government workers can’t even be required to pay for a union’s negotiations on their behalf.
Some labor groups have met the setbacks by refocussing on old ideals of economic justice and workplace democracy. That may sound utopian, but Rosenfeld suggests a hardheaded justification. Although unions often gauge their power by the premium that membership adds to a worker’s compensation—Greenhouse reports an estimate, from 2015, of 13.6 per cent—it’s not in a union’s interest for the wage premium to be too high; if a unionized company is put at a competitive disadvantage, it might go out of business. A more strategic goal is to establish a wage floor across an economic sector. That has been the aim of the Fight for $15, a grassroots movement to empower service workers. It began in 2012 with fast-food workers in New York City and a year later won a law, in a Seattle suburb, phasing in a fifteen-dollar-an-hour minimum wage. Similar laws now cover California, New York City, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. The Service Employees International Union helped launch the movement and put tens of millions of dollars into it, even though most beneficiaries aren’t union members and may never be.
The Fight for $15 has featured a new kind of strike, lasting only a day and designed not to deprive a company of labor but to draw media attention. Why try to shut down a McDonald’s when you can hold a sit-in at a shareholder meeting, or publicize the fact that the company’s help line advises cash-strapped workers to visit food pantries and sign children up for Medicaid? In a similar strategy, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group that advocates for tomato pickers in Florida, boycotted one fast-food chain at a time in order to persuade the businesses to buy tomatoes only from growers certified as providing rest breaks, shade tents, drinking water, and fair pay.
Perhaps altruism and storytelling are the new union weapons. Greenhouse reports that a teachers’ union in St. Paul, Minnesota, won support from the community when it added the goals of students and parents, such as more nurses and fewer standardized tests, to the teachers’ demands for themselves. During the Red for Ed strikes that spread via social media last year, teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona made their economic plight part of a bid for broader political engagement.
Even weakened, unions continue to have benevolent effects on civic life. The children of union parents earn more when they grow up, and so do children merely raised in a neighborhood with many union families. Though unions are losing their capacity to reduce income inequality in the private sector, they continue to reduce it among government employees. Rosenfeld estimates that union membership increases voter turnout by five percentage points; the only other institutions capable of boosting it for voters of low socioeconomic status are churches. In a backhanded compliment to unions’ political efficacy, a 2018 study found that right-to-work laws, by impairing union activities, reduce turnout in Presidential elections by two percentage points—and reduce Democratic vote share by enough to have cost Hillary Clinton victories in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in 2016.
In a world where technology allows an employer to script and oversee every decision, workers will need to help one another if they want to defend their dignity. It’s not at all clear what the unions of the future will look like, but it may be that grander aspirations are necessary to achieve smaller ones. ?
This article appears in the print edition of the August 26, 2019, issue.
Caleb Crain is the author of the novel “Necessary Errors” and the scholarly study “American Sympathy.” His second novel, “Overthrow,” comes out this month.