What happened to America’s labor unions?

Corporations, elected officials, the media and white-collar workers have contributed to the decline of American labor

Earlier this summer my wife and I went to an outdoor party at a neighbor’s house. At the event was an older gentleman who’d recently lost his wife. He was in a reflective mood, so we struck up a conversation. It turned out he’d served as a union rep in Pennsylvania, battling employers and negotiating with attorneys for more than 30 years.

He told us about one of his workers years ago who’d been putting in long and grueling hours. He was so exhausted that he’d fallen asleep at a red light. A police officer woke him up, escorted him to a nearby parking lot, took his keys, and told him he’d be back in two hours. Two hours later the officer returned, woke the man from a nap, called his employer and sent him home. That would never happen today, our new friend said with a smile.

Then he told us how many of his members had worked for a candy manufacturer. Among their tasks was wrapping and packaging. The plant had brutal, unforgiving concrete floors, and his workers developed knee problems, hip problems, and back pain from long hours on the hard surfaces. As their rep, he’d pleaded with the company to provide mats and padding. They refused. Many wound up needing surgeries and having permanent disabilities. For what? Cheap candy. “They wouldn’t even give them mats,” he said, as he fought back tears. I’ve never thought about candy the same way since.

At their best, labor unions in America have fought for workers to have better pay, better conditions, better treatment and more power against those who would exploit their labor for profits. Yet for the past 65 years in America, labor unions have been in steady decline. Why? What’s happened to American labor?

At their peak in the post-WWII era, union membership accounted for 35 percent of the non-agricultural workforce. But between 1954 and 1980, even as the number of union workers increased, the percentage of laborers in unions steadily decreased. In the 1980s and 1990s, membership declined even further. Today, approximately 10 percent of wage and salaried workers are unionized, principally in protective service occupations (police, firefighters) or the public sector (government workers, teachers and librarians).

Corporate antagonism has been one major factor. The diminished power of American labor has occurred simultaneously with a sizable increase in corporate power. For the past six decades, capital has been increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations through mergers, acquisitions and takeovers. Corporations have grown so large and influential they can withstand any strikes and replace striking workers. As a result, work stoppages—a key negotiating tactic of organized labor—have become less frequent and less effective.

American corporations have also outsourced millions of jobs overseas where there are lower labor costs and minimal employee protection laws. Companies save billions of dollars each year by doing so. The ease by which jobs can be relocated places workers at a severe disadvantage. If American laborers are unwilling to accept salary cuts and more demanding work schedules, management will simply transfer the jobs to a foreign setting.

Companies also target union leaders for harassment. Between 1955 and 1980, there was a seven-fold increase in unfair labor practice suits filed by labor unions. Companies hire consultants to bust unions, disincentive union membership, and pit workers against each other—usually by antagonizing conflicts among different races, ethnicities and classes.

Geography also plays a role in the decline of union membership. More than half of all union members today reside in just seven states: California, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and New Jersey. Increasingly, companies have moved away from these strong union states to the American South and the Sunbelt, where union membership rates are lower and workers hold more negative views toward unions. These states also have so-called “Right to Work” laws, which prohibit unions from mandating all workers covered by their contracts to pay union dues. Not coincidentally, states with RTW laws include the Southern and Sunbelt states of Florida, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. Also not coincidentally, these states have elected officials who sympathize with corporate interests.

Simply put then, policymakers friendly to corporate America pass legislation that limits the ability of unions to fund themselves. Corporations then shift their operations to those states. Corporate money flows into state coffers, campaign donations from industry flow into the pockets of state officials, and the cycle repeats. RTW advocates argue that these arrangements keep intact the personal freedoms of workers, as well as maintain employer flexibility, which saves jobs. Employment rates do tend to be modestly higher in RTW states. But unionization rates are less than half of what they are in union security states, and wages are lower.

Unions themselves also bear some responsibility for their decline. Over time, unions have become increasingly bureaucratic. Union leaders spend more time solidifying and retaining their power, critics argue, then advocating on behalf of their workers. Unions have fallen victim to what is called the “iron law of oligarchy.” As sociologists Kim Voss and Rachel Sherman describe it, “increasing numbers of professionalized staff become indispensable to the organization, and a growing distance between staff and members allows leaders to mold the organization in their interests rather than in those of the members. Goals and tactics are transformed in a conservative direction as leaders become concerned above all with organizational survival.”

Corporate media have also played a role. Union members have been depicted by Hollywood and television as crude and corrupt, in characters such as Archie Bunker and Jimmy Hoffa. In the news media, reporting tends to focus on strikes and labor discord, but seldom mentions the hundreds of negotiated deals that unions make each year. As a result, media paint a picture of unions as divisive and unsavory. That stigma shapes public perception.

Finally, there is the changing nature of labor itself. The American economy has increasingly shifted to more white-collar work as opposed to blue-collar work, and white-collar workers tend be very unreceptive to unions. White-collar workers aspire to impress and become the 1-percenters they report to. They, thus, avoid unions, which they perceive to represent the lower rungs of society. As the American economy features more self-employed workers, those individuals become more difficult to organize, especially amid varying work hours, child care, elder care and other commitments.

All of these factors have diminished union membership and significance as we approach Labor Day. In the 1880s and 1890s, Labor Day featured massive parades with tens of thousands of participants across major U.S. cities. Today, it is a day off of work, a holiday at the beach, and an opportunity to save money on appliances. As historians Michael Kazin and Steven J. Ross have written, “Labor Day was the one day each year when organized labor could command the attention, however, brief, of millions of people… using holiday celebrations to pursue two goals simultaneously: building, inspiring, and mobilizing a labor movement and courting a mass public whose opinions about that movement could help legitimize and advance its reputation and power.”

Today that movement has far less power than it once did, and public opinion cares more about consuming products quickly and cheaply than protecting the workers who make such conveniences possible. This Labor Day, as you unwrap a piece of candy while celebrating with family and friends, take a moment to look at the wrapper and think about the people who made it possible—sacrificing their labor, health, and livelihoods along the way.

Have a safe and restful Labor Day weekend.


Schedule update: Last week’s newsletter mentioned an event on WWII video games hosted by the National WWII Museum in New Orleans on September 10th. Due to the destruction caused by Hurricane Ida, that event has been postponed. Check back to this newsletter or my website for updates.


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