At the end of World War II, one in three working Americans had a union card. This however, proved to be the high water mark for organized labor, which in 2012 could claim the loyalty of only about one in nine Americans. Its decline stems in part from massive structural shifts in the economy, increasingly business-friendly government policies, the advent of the knowledge and service worker, changing demographics and lifestyle, and, regrettably, the unions' own inability to prove their relevancy and value to workers. The question is: can the labor movement recover?
Keywords AFL-CIO; Blue Collar Workers; Closed Shop; Collective Bargaining; Craft Unions; Deskilling; Expectancy-Value Theory; Frustration-Aggression Theory; Industrial Unions; Interactionist Theory; Lockout; Open Shop; White Collar Workers
In 1945, slightly more than one in three U.S. private-sector employees belonged to a union. By 1995, this ratio stood at slightly more than one in ten (Strauss, 1995, p. 330). This is not just an American phenomenon: between 1970 and 2003, the union share of the British workforce dipped from 44.8 percent to 29.3 percent, the French from 21.7 to 8.3 percent, and the Japanese from 35.1 to 19.7 percent. By comparison, 23.5 percent of the U.S. workforce was unionized in 1970; in 2003 this figure stood at just 12.4 percent (Viser, 2006, p. 45). In a span of just ten years, from 1985 to 1995, union membership in the United States declined 21 percent. In fact, union membership in seventy-two of ninety-two countries surveyed in 1995 by the International Labor Office had declined in the previous ten-year period (Epstein, 1998, p. 13).
All told, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 14.4 million Americans belonged to a union in 2012. Nearly 36 percent of the public sector was organized; within the public sector, 41.7 percent of local government employees — most notably teachers, police officers, and fire fighters — belonged to a union. Just 6.6 percent of the private sector workforce was unionized. The highest participation rates here came in the transportation and utilities industry (20.6 percent) and construction industry (13.2 percent). The lowest rates came in the financial services industry (1.9 percent) and agriculture (1.4 percent). Age mattered across industries, with the highest rate among workers aged 55 to 64 (14.9 percent), and the lowest among those aged 16 to 24 (4.2 percent) (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013).
Given all these statistics, one cannot help but ask: Why do workers still join a union? What larger economic and political purpose do unions continue to serve, if any? What precipitated such a dramatic decline, and is it irreversible?
To a sociologist, a union is one way people band together for protection and mutual succor. It imposes order, imparts values, and ensures its and therefore its members' survival, like other institutions. A union deliberately sets about creating a monopoly in the supply of labor in order to set prices (i.e. wages) and other conditions of exchange. It behaves exactly like a business would. In the jargon of industrial relations, labor and management each seek to strengthen its bargaining power at the other's expense. The political scientist will explain how the union, over time, became an influential constituency in its own right. In the larger context, the labor movement counters capitalism's worst excesses, preventing them from destabilizing the social order and thus the state's claim to legitimacy (Sullivan, 2006).
Theories on Union Participation
The decision to join a union, social psychologists tell us, is a rational choice best explained by expectancy-value theory. Here, the worker assesses the perceived benefits and attendant costs, paying particular attention to
- The likelihood the union can achieve its stated goals,
- The reaction of significant others and
- The prospective rewards and/or penalties of joining.
At some point in the process, the prospective member must reconcile the certainty of the individual risk with the uncertainty of the collective action (1) succeeding and (2) everyone involved sharing equally in that success. Social psychologists call this the dilemma of collective behavior, and the likelihood of non-joiners benefiting from the group's actions the free-rider problem. These very real drawbacks are overcome psychologically only when someone is convinced that
- Success depends on his or her participation,
- Others will participate in sufficiently large numbers, and
- Collective action will achieve the desired goal (Klandermans, 1984).
Other theories emphasize the emotional or social component. Unaddressed dissatisfaction with wages, working conditions, treatment by supervisors and management, even the work itself breeds worker resentment and an 'us-versus-them' mentality. This is the core-proposition of frustration-aggression theory. Successful union organizing signals the incomplete integration of the worker into the company, a system in disequilibrium attempting to right itself. A willingness to strike grows as individual and collective workers' frustration levels increase. Typically, however, a strike occurs only when workers consider their goals and the union's in close alignment. Worker non-participation and membership defections suggest that these interests can and do diverge. Frustration-aggression theory thus also explains dysfunctional unions. Research suggests that most workers consider the cost and benefits of acting out their frustration. Alternatively, interactionist theory looks beyond the workplace for explanations of union participation and finds it in primary social groups — family, friends, and neighbors. They after all, are most intimately involved in shaping our values and beliefs; no other organization or institution — state, church, union — exerts as much direct influence. Successful unions aspire to assume such a role in their members' lives. i.e., become one of their primary groups. The era of the company town is largely gone; most workers no longer live together in tight-knit communities (Klandermans, 1986).
The Historical Context
The first to organize were the highly skilled workmen in craft unions. Ironworkers belonged to one, machinists to another, bricklayers to yet another and so on each according to his trade. Each craft union represented the interests of all its members working in different industries and regions. And because it deliberately limited membership by licensing only graduates of its own apprentice programs, each craft union exerted monopoly-like powers in its dealings with employers. The same principle underlay the success of the artisan guild of medieval times. Here, all the local craftsmen in a given trade — weaving, masonry, metal-working, baking, soap-making, etc. — agreed upon the prices they'd charge, admonished colleagues producing inferior goods, accredited the apprentices and journeymen who would one day join their ranks, and spoke as one voice on the municipal affairs. Guild members differed from nineteenth-century union-craftsmen in one crucial respect: they owned the ateliers in which they worked.
Industrialization turned the workshop into the factory floor and the proprietor-craftsman into a wage-earning employee. The investor who financed the increasingly mechanized equipment these modern-day artisans used valued cost-cutting over a generous wage. Nor could they, in all fairness, realistically do otherwise given the ruthless competition of the laissez-faire capitalism of the day. Business believed it had to answer for its actions to no one but itself. Surveying the dismal living conditions the early industrial worker endured as a result, social reformers and labor activists believed otherwise, but theirs was very much a minority view. The machines that powered the industrial revolution had to be built and maintained by skilled workers. They too were in the minority but, unlike others, literally held the power to slow or shut down the production line (Haydu, 1989).
Their influence waned in the twentieth century as mass industrialization gathered pace. Complex production processes increasingly were broken down into a series of simple tasks more readily done by machines that almost anyone with a modicum of training could attend to. And so the era of the assembly line and the consequent 'deskilling' of the workforce in the late nineteenth century undercut the craft unions' strongest bargaining chip. A ready supply of untrained workers meant employers could hire and fire virtually at will; a surplus meant they could keep wages low and factory conditions uncongenial (Fulcher & Scott, 2011).
To wrest back some measure of bargaining power from large industrialists would take nothing short of a mass movement, and a militant one at that. Workers could only turn to each other for aid and comfort; prevailing government policy and court rulings stood squarely in the capitalists' corner. Realizing this, unions became inclusive rather than exclusive in their outlook. If they could amass enough support to shut down production, they reasoned, employers would have to make concessions. The dense concentrations of unskilled labor immediately surrounding industrial sites proved a boon in this respect. If companies could successfully recruit there, so too could unions. In the era of vertically integrated monopolies, a single company extracted and shipped its raw materials to waiting processing and production plants and then delivered the finished goods to customers. To wield any influence unions had to enlist national support across...
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