State of the union
The demise of labor unions has eroded social equity, says sociologist Jake Rosenfeld
Whatever happened to the “New Deal” decades, those years in which social programs and a growing middle class meant an unprecedented era of prosperity in the United States? Liberals bemoan how conservative the electorate has become, without really understanding why this happened. While much has been written about the conservative revolution, starting with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, one key component of this sea change in American politics has often been ignored: the decline in the American labor movement.
University of Washington Sociology Professor Jake Rosenfeld, in “What Unions No Longer Do,” [Harvard University Press, $39.95] presents compelling statistical evidence that a key factor in the decline of liberal politics, the decline of social programs and the rise of inequality and poverty in the United States is the decline in unions. No radical, Rosenfeld sees labor unions as a necessary component for a stable democracy. I interviewed Rosenfeld about the main points of his book.
Were you ever in a union?
No. I’ve been in school all my life. I grew up in a household of academics, and we have no other marketable skills.
What got you interested in labor and labor sociology?
This has gone on about 10 years. I was interested in how we might understand the dramatic rise in income inequality in the past couple of decades. It became abundantly clear that to understand the rise of inequality in the U.S. required an understanding of the decline of organized labor.
What was your concern about inequality?
The narrative for a long time has been that it’s not inequality that matters: What matters is mobility. Now there’s evidence that mobility in the United States was never as high as we thought it was, and to the extent it was very high, it was at the tailend of the 19th and 20th centuries and then stalled for some time. There’s some evidence, and it remains, I think, quite speculative, that high inequality actually in itself retards mobility: It stops mobility in its tracks for a variety of reasons.
Then there’s just the broader issue of fairness. High inequality strikes a lot of Americans and others as just unfair: Why do we see such dramatic differences in pay for CEOs and average workers, and why do we see a disconnect between CEO pay, bankers’ pay and the performance of their own companies? There seems to be something completely off-kilter there.
Tell me about your book.
The major thrust of the book explores the fact of what no longer happens given that we’ve had such a major decline in organized labor.
They [the unions] counterbalanced corporate interests, both in the economic sphere and in politics. What, politically, unions did when they were strong was bring millions of non-elite Americans into politics. That’s one effect of mass labor that’s gone now.
But what they also did was raise wages for millions and millions of nonunion workers. When organized labor was strong, it often organized companies that were industry leaders. And when a new company comes along and the employer is trying to decide what to pay workers, you look to what the industry leaders do.
The other way is that if you’re a nonunion employer and want to keep a union out, a tried and true tactic is to keep your workers happy. That happened by paying them union-level wages. Those effects have declined dramatically, so now the kind of broad-based prosperity that unions once provided has receded.
You even point to evidence that unions now scale their wage demands to what the nonunion workforce is getting.
That’s right. That’s happening more and more today. So in the past where organized firms were kind of the industry standards, they were the leaders in setting pay and benefits. Now it’s the opposite: So we see that in the auto industry where the Southern transplant firms are leading the way in terms of wage and benefit scales. And GM and the other American firms that remain organized are having to match these nonunion workers’ pay scales. So it’s a complete flipping of the historical relationship.
Why would I want to belong to a union if I wouldn’t get better pay?
There’s still robust wage benefits that accrue to belonging to a labor union. It’s going to vary by industry. It’s going to vary by region. You’re still offered greater protections. You’re still offered, generally speaking, better benefit packages and higher wages than your otherwise similar nonunion worker.
[There’s] job security. And some kind of a collective voice in case you’re accused of doing something wrong at the worksite. That’s something that we’ve seen decline dramatically, so now the power relationship has turned decisively toward employers in American workplaces.
The right tends to see unions as screwing up the proper working of the economic system.
Conservatives in the United States have had long-standing antipathy towards the American labor movement. There’s no beating around the bush. And that’s going to be true of American employers. We don’t have a good handle on just why. If you look cross-nationally, you just don’t see this as much, at least among our peer nations today, [this] deep-standing opposition to labor unions. Sometimes it seems an opposition to labor unions that goes beyond their own economic interest. They’re really willing to risk everything to prevent a union in their company. That’s something that’s gone back a long time.
You suggested that in the ’60s, employers went from playing by the rules to violating labor laws because it was worth the cost of violating the laws to break the unions or get rid of their power.
Business got organized, came together and realized that they could use the existing labor legislation framework to their advantage. There was this growth of an industry of anti-union consultants who come in and advise employers on how to rid [themselves of] existing unions and prevent new ones from coming in, and they mastered it. The employers really mastered it.
In about a third of organizing drives, employers fire pro-union workers, and oftentimes they’re found guilty of violating labor laws, but the penalties for these violations are just a pittance on their total operating sheets, so they’ve just factored them into the cost of doing business. And there’s no legislation passed to rebalance that, once that field had become tilted.
Why do you think the employers changed in the way they were doing business?
That’s a great question, and I don’t think we have a good answer to it. There were very real economic pressures, especially of the mid- to late ’70s into the 1980s. This was the era where in a lot of industries we saw increasing global competition; we saw technological changes. The issue, though, is that we saw union declines in industries that have no global competition, declines in industries which are not outsourceable.
What about racism and gender equality?
Unions certainly historically were kind of racist, xenophobic organizations that were interested first and foremost in protecting the prerogatives of white males. And then things changed in the middle of the 20th century and changed dramatically.
When President Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, less than 1 percent of all union members were African Americans, so almost none. Forty years later, by the early 1970s, no population is more overrepresented in the labor movement than African-American workers. It’s become an incredibly inclusive set of organizations that were really helpful in narrowing racial wage inequality for some time. And that’s true among women workers as well.
If you look at the historical relationships between immigrant workers and the labor movement in the U.S., a disproportionate number of early U.S. labor leaders were themselves immigrants. Memberships, too, tended to be disproportionately foreign-born populations. Despite that, for generations the labor movement was quite xenophobic in its official stance toward the U.S.’s immigration laws.
But that changed dramatically by the tailend of the 20th century. Unions now are on the forefront of pushing for immigration reform, for legalizing the millions and millions of immigrants that are in the U.S. today.
In some ways is the labor movement being saved by immigrant workers?
In some degrees. Unions discovered, almost accidentally in the ’80s and ’90s, that immigrant workers, disproportionately Hispanic, in some cases were actually easier to organize than native-born U.S. workers because they’re coming from places that had strong labor movements, and they’re coming from experiences of collective mobilization, of solidarity. These experiences and familiarity with unions oftentimes were completely lacking among American workers, given that the American labor movement had been so devastated.
Absent a change in the political climate, is there hope for the labor movement?
There have been some emerging positive signs, if you look at the fast-food worker campaigns, if you look at the agitations at Walmarts and other big box retailers, if you look at all the nationwide efforts to raise the minimum wage. There’s a real opening for organized labor, and it’s for them to raise their hands and say, right, these issues, the issues of poverty, the issues of inequality, the fragile middle class, you can’t understand these issues without accounting for our plight. By uniting these issues that are usually thought of in isolation, that might help turn the tide politically a bit.
There are real pushes within the broad-based left that are more progressive than you’ve seen in a while. Look at Bill de Blasio’s rise in New York City. [De Blasio is a progressive Democrat who became the city’s mayor last November when he won more than 70 percent of the vote.] Look at the minimum-wage campaigns across the country and here in Seattle.
Seattle remains a fortress of strong organized labor, and you can see the consequences of that. The $15–an-hour minimum wage is dramatic. We shouldn’t underplay that. You see what unions can and still remain able to do in places where they have a strong base. That would be a dramatic way of reducing poverty levels, restraining inequality, and that’s going to reverberate up the pay scale, too. So it’s not only going to affect those at the bottom of the economic distribution.
Unions are providing a lot of the funding for and capacity for these drives, despite the fact that very few union members are themselves poor or are themselves low-wage workers. It’s to organized labor’s credit that they’re focusing on them again, in spite of the fact that it will not deliver them any new dues-paying members. This is what we’ve seen the labor movement do throughout its history in the United States: look out for a broad shared prosperity for the American working and middle class.
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