The statistics are striking. At the end of 1997, when the most recent complete count was made, 14.1 percent of employed Americans belonged to unions, the lowest proportion since 1936. At the close of World War II, when membership was at its height, 35.3 percent of working men and women carried union cards.

Currently, 41.9 percent of union members are in the public sector, up from 25.8 percent twenty years ago. During this period, also, the number of women rose from 22.7 percent to 39.4 percent of total membership rolls. Moreover, 55.7 percent of union members have attended college, almost exactly the ratio for the workforce as a whole. Among the most strongly organized occupations are firefighters (71.6 percent), flight attendants (69.4 percent), and high school teachers (56.1 percent). Only 28.6 percent of coal miners now belong to unions, and only 19.5 percent of truck drivers.

The teamsters union, with the son of Jimmy Hoffa as its new president, currently has 1.4 million members, down from 2.3 million when his father was its head. (Nor is there much likelihood that these losses will be reversed, as Hoffa’s support comes largely from local satraps who have shown little interest in mounting organizing drives.) During the last two decades, the wage advantage for unionized workers with private jobs has fallen by 44.1 percent, although in the public sector it has moved up 9.5 percent.1

The reasons for the fall in membership have been much discussed. One cause, clearly, has been the decline of manufacturing in America and the transfer of much manufacturing work abroad. Because of labor-saving innovations, moreover, fewer people are needed to make steel or assemble cars. As a result, 16.1 percent of US workers now work in factories, down from 22.8 percent twenty years ago. There are also fewer people on corporate payrolls, which in the past were more likely to sign industrywide contracts. In the latest available count, the 800 largest US firms employed 17.0 percent of the overall workforce, against 25.7 percent twenty years earlier. Many of these companies now have much of their work done abroad or farm it out to relatively small domestic suppliers. Nike does not make a single sneaker in the United States; many publishers are sending typesetting overseas; insurance companies are having paperwork processed abroad.

At home, corporate jobs are frequently assigned to temporary workers, who are often classed as “independent contractors,” and are not easily reached in union organizing campaigns. Indeed, there are fewer long-term jobs, something union seniority could once guarantee. Last year, among men aged forty to forty-five, only 39.1 percent had worked ten or more years for their current employer, compared with 51.1 percent in 1983.


“Back to the Future” could have been an alternate title of Stanley Aronowitz’s plea for a revitalized labor movement. The famous labor leaders of the 1930s—Walter Reuther of the auto workers, John L. Lewis of the miners, Harry Bridges of the longshoremen—haunt his pages. (How many of today’s union heads can we name?) So do the heady days of sit-down strikes and face-offs with National Guardsmen. Hence, too, Aronowitz’s epigraph, from the old anthem: “Solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong!”

Reviving the labor movement won’t be easy. Only one in seven workers now belongs to unions, and in the private sector it is one in ten. True, the AFL-CIO signed up 400,000 new members in 1997, ranging from hotel workers in Las Vegas and janitors in Denver to nurses in San Diego. Yet during the same year, unions lost 200,000 members, because locals were decertified or (more likely) plants and companies closed or moved away. Given the size of today’s workforce, unions would have to find 15 million new members to return to their 1945 high.2

Still, Aronowitz is optimistic. “With all of its flaws,” he writes, “the labor movement remains the best hope for democracy.” He cites successful strikes in 1998 at General Motors and United Parcel Service, plus signs of serious commitments to organizing by the AFL-CIO’s new leadership. From the Ashes of the Old contains much advice to the labor movement. Unions, Aronowitz says, should mount new campaigns in Southern states, since low pay there pulls down wages everywhere. Yet he says hardly a word about Southern “right-to-work” laws, which pose formidable barriers to unions and face no likelihood of repeal. He would also have unions recruit the working poor, although it will not be easy to overcome “the reluctance of most unions to identify themselves with the economically abject.” Office workers, professionals, and lower-level managers are also on his list, even if many of them appear to feel that union protection is unnecessary or demeaning. Still, white-collar public employees have been joining unions, so why not their private counterparts?

Unions, Aronowitz writes, should press for a shorter work week, and refuse offers of “a dual wage system” with lower pay for new hires. He also urges that they “establish connections” with minority and women’s groups, and make common cause with environmentalists and those who favor choice on abortion. His conclusion on political strategy is not surprising, although it is hard even to visualize how it could be followed.


It may be time to fashion a new doctrine of democratic syndicalism, wherein the labor movement remains distant from both the state and the party system,…running its own candidates in selected races, and allying itself with independent political formations and social movements.

From the Ashes of the Old is basically a plea for a more just America, with the added hope that unions will become the force for realizing this vision. But Aronowitz offers little evidence that they are ready to espouse larger social goals. True, unions, by definition, demand a degree of income redistribution, although today they often settle for preserving what their members have. In the private sector, union workers’ financial edge over other workers is half what it was two decades ago, not least because management is taking a larger share of the pie. Even the epithet “movement” sits awkwardly on associations not even sure they can maintain their status quo.


There is a widespread impression that more and more Americans identify with management or are professional workers who will resist joining unions. But is this really so? In his book counseling corporations on how to defeat unions, Alfred DeMaria warns that professionals may be less self-reliant than is often thought. While some may initially “believe that a union would stifle individual achievement,” he says, “unions have often effectively countered this belief”:

They persuade professional employees to join by arguing that salaries and promotion mechanisms are bona fide subjects for collective bargaining. Without a union, they argue, management makes these decisions unilaterally, usually without any input from the professionals. They promise that union representation will give them input into working conditions and the ability to develop systems that best suit their profession and employment conditions.

Indeed, as has been noted, over half of union members have attended college, and those with degrees earn an average of $45,396 a year. In fact, union membership extends all the way up the salary scale. Movie stars who get eight figures per picture find it useful to renew their cards in the Screen Actors Guild, not least for its generous health benefits. Here are a few examples of salaries secured through collective bargaining by highly trained professionals:

  • Pilots with only fifteen years of service at Northwest, American, United, and US Airways now earn on average over $175,000 a year. To gain this, they have been willing to strike and picket terminals.
  • Professors at New York’s City University can now get as much as $101,655 for twenty-eight weeks of teaching. Some need only spend 140 hours a year in a classroom.
  • Top reporters at The New York Times receive over $100,000 when overtime pay is added in, as it often is, since their Newspaper Guild contract sets the basic workweek at 37 1/2 hours.

  • Under the National Basketball Association contract, first-year players—some of them 18-year-olds straight from high school—will start at $300,000.

  • Last year, 450 New Jersey physicians sought to join the United Food and Commerical Workers Union, alongside meat cutters and supermarket cashiers, the better to deal with the HMOs in their state. The National Labor Relations Board turned down their bid, ruling they are “skilled professionals with the characteristics of independent business people.” The doctors are appealing the decision, on the ground that its latter part is no longer an accurate description.

According to federal law, most managers may not join or form unions. In theory, and often in practice, they serve as surrogates for the top executives, and sit on their side of the table. To allow them to ally themselves with the workers they supervise, or even to have a union of their own, would give them an ambiguous status, undercutting the authority of management. However, as Aronowitz makes clear, the managerial jobs have undergone radical changes in recent years. Not only do few managers have secretaries; most now do much of their own typing. Fewer of them make decisions, since “computer-mediated technologies turned over dozens of managerial functions to programmers.” Loan officers at banks now tap in data on applicants, and software prints out a yes or no, with specifications and conditions.

Aronowitz believes that “the largest group of managers assign work and are responsible for its performance.” Yet even this is no longer so. In 1997, the most recent count by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10 million men and 8.2 million women had jobs listed as managers, executives, or administrators. Taken together, they accounted for one in seven of all American workers. Yet as it turns out, most of them do not supervise other workers or, for that matter, have anyone “under” them. Rather, they carry out assignments—for example, filling in spreadsheets—which are office counterparts of production work. At best, they form a support staff for the people really in charge, who can accurately be called “management”; but so do receptionists and billing clerks.3

Hypothetically, many if not most members of this tier of workers might be drawn to union membership. Some court decisions would first be required to establish that impressive titles need not signify supervisory functions or duties. Even now, in the public sector, genuine managers can form unions if their state legislatures allow them to do so. Thus in New York, school principals and police commanders use collective bargaining to negotiate pay and working conditions.


According to Aronowitz, “some 130,000 professors and other education professionals” are now members of unions, representing “a little under a quarter of full-time faculty in colleges and universities.” There would be considerably more, he observes, were it not for a 1980 (not 1981, as he states) Supreme Court decision that said administrators at private schools were not obliged to negotiate with faculty unions. A 5-4 decision supported the position of New York’s Yeshiva University that its professors were an arm of management. In particular, the majority upheld a lower court’s finding that faculty members lacked the right to organize, since they were “in effect substantially and pervasively operating the enterprise.”4

Because of this decision, upwards of 250,000 faculty members at some 2,000 private colleges and universities can only organize with their administration’s consent, which few are inclined to grant. The pleadings in the Yeshiva case were made before judges who had limited understanding of what campus life is like. Not surprisingly, they were given very different accounts of where academic power lies. Yeshiva’s lawyers documented professors’ participation in management through a College Senate and Faculty Assembly, as well as Personnel and Budget panels and an Academic Priorities and Resource Allocation Committee. It isn’t hard to make such a case, since professors themselves tell you how much time they devote to discussing college policies. Indeed, colleges and universities probably have more committees per capita than any other profession.

The Yeshiva administration argued that the faculty as a group had an important say on tuition rates, the size of the student body, even the location of schools. The Court’s majority accepted this image, writing that “it is difficult to imagine decisions more managerial than these.” And, the judges added, it is a power that “extends beyond strictly academic concerns.” Probably also influential was an amicus brief from Johns Hopkins and New York University, warning that unionization would turn independent scholars into “worker-professors.”

The pleading of the soon-to-be defunct union was half-hearted at best. The brief filed by Yeshiva’s “Faculty Association” had to acknowledge the panoply of committees in which professors considered campus issues. But, it went on to say, participation did not necessarily mean power: faculty decisions, the brief argued, were no more than recommendations, and it listed a dozen that were ignored or overturned by the trustees and president, not to mention provosts and deans. Administrators alone made key financial decisions, the brief concluded, and “the budget is not available to the faculty.”

But the union’s biggest problem was that the “bargaining unit” it had hoped to create included department chairmen and assistant deans—who could be made to look like management—as well as tenured senior professors. So it was hard to contend that all its members were powerless employees. Strangely, the union’s brief did not spell out how many faculty members lacked tenure. In all likelihood, Yeshiva’s situation was similar at that time to those for private colleges as a whole, where three quarters of all faculty were either on terminable contracts or were part-timers who not only lacked job security but had virtually no say about their working conditions. Indeed, had the union concentrated on its rank and file, who never even get to sit on committees, it might well have convinced one more justice that most faculty members in fact deserved to be called “worker-professors.”


While professors can’t have unions because they are seen as managers, graduate students who work as teaching assistants at Yale and the University of California have joined unions but can’t get official recognition for them. They face formidable opposition. Since Yale is a private institution, it is covered by a 1972 National Labor Relations Board ruling that graduate assistants are “serving primarily as students and not primarily as employees.” The California universities are subject to a state law which says that students who work are employees only if their jobs are “unrelated to their educational objectives.” The rules at Yale and in the California university system are basically the same: since graduate students are not “employed,” they cannot have a union. (Neither rule would stop those who work, say, in a campus cafeteria from joining or forming a union.) Teaching assistants at both places are challenging prevailing interpretations of who and what they are. Yale’s students have affiliated with the AFL-CIO’s Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union and California’s with the United Auto Workers.5

Yale’s official position is that a union would inhibit the “normal discourse that takes place between faculty and graduate students,” and bring a “chilling of the collegial relationship between budding scholars and mentors.” In affirming California’s law, an appellate court warned that “collective bargaining would interfere with the mentor-student relationship, damaging the stature of the university and its ability to attract the best students and faculty.” Yale’s administrators argue that teaching assistants now “work closely with members of the faculty, in the manner of apprentices,” while senior professors “instruct novice teachers in the skills of teaching.” This “delicate balance,” as seen by the California court, would be imperiled by the tensions arising from union membership. Preparing lessons and facing undergraduates helps graduate students to master their fields. Even the grind of grading papers is not working, but learning.

Graduate students tell a different story. To start, most say they are given little or no guidance on the teaching they do. Professors hardly ever sit in on their classes and then offer suggestions. As for help in perfecting their scholarship, students often teach for other departments, or in fields removed from their sphere of research. These assignments are not for their benefit, but occur because the university needs bodies. (Yale’s economics department has even recruited teaching assistants from the school of forestry.) At Yale, yearly stipends for teaching assistants run from $10,200 to $16,750, at UCLA from $13,000 to $16,000. In theory, these are half-time positions; but they can be more demanding. Teaching assistants are frequently asked to write letters of recommendation, since they may be the only teachers who know the undergraduates. One union demand is to limit section size to fifteen students, which some professors see as undue interference with educational policy. Another is to add dental coverage to existing health plans, since the costs of root canals are not easily met with prevailing stipends.6

Fears about unions interfering with apprenticeship could be best answered by facts, if they were available. Teaching assistants in ten public university systems—including those in Iowa, Massachusetts, and New Jersey—are now allowed to form unions. Wisconsin’s student-employees have been taking part in collective bargaining and negotiating contracts since 1969. The experience of those campuses would tell us whether mentor-novice relationships have been damaged by union membership. Thus far, there have been no systematic surveys addressed to that question.


The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, even with its Taft-Hartley amendments of 1947, declares that unions have full legal standing and so must be given a fair chance to attract members. The act also specifies that even hostile employers must recognize unions and begin to bargain with them if most workers want them. It is probably accurate to say that most managements, if given their way, would prefer that their employees remain unorganized; and in the private sector today, most companies are not dealing with unions.

The National Labor Relations Board, set up to administer the NLRA, has evolved a voluminous case law detailing the kinds of activities allowed to the two sides, with rules on what can be said and by whom. Thus members of management may not threaten to close a plant if the union wins an election authorizing it to represent workers, and they cannot issue any statements at all twenty-four hours prior to the balloting in such an election. A recurrent issue is “company unions,” which are outlawed by the act. Before 1935, such groups were formed and financed by employers to head off outside organizers. In labor circles, the suspicion persists that steps by management to bring workers into “collaborative” and “consultative” committees are not only intended to increase efficiency, which may turn out to be the case, but have the subtler aim of keeping unions out.7

In The Unions and the Democrats, Taylor Dark shows how the issue of employee relations with management has been handled in Washington. In 1994, a commission appointed by President Clinton’s labor and commerce secretaries recommended that the NLRA be “clarified” to allow innovative forms of “labor-management cooperation.” Two years later, Congress passed the Teamwork for Employees and Managers Act, which, in Dark’s summary, permitted employers “to establish employee organizations to discuss workplace issues—including wages, hours, and working conditions—outside of union settings.”

Clinton vetoed the bill, largely at the behest of labor leaders, who have always been wary of efforts at closer “cooperation” from which unions are excluded. After all, they argue, along with improved productivity and quality control, managements also seek greater employee involvement in reducing labor costs. Yet this cannot avoid raising the question of who is paid how much for doing what. (A major reason Federal Express pilots voted for a union was that they were being made to fly more hours for the same rate of pay.) Dark also points out that Clinton’s veto and other less-noticed actions have paid off politically. They not only ensured the support of the unions for the Democratic Party but encouraged them to work actively and effectively for Clinton’s reelection.

At the same time, as Roger E. Alcaly has shown in these pages, unions have been active in plans where employees become full or partial owners of firms. United Airlines and Weirton Steel are prominent examples; so was Avis Rent-a-Car, until employees sold their majority share to an investment group. Under worker ownership, innovations that increase productivity are less likely to be resisted, since their aim is not to enrich outside stockholders or pump up executive bonuses. Changes in ownership like these tend to occur when companies are on the ropes, and workers agree to concessions in return for a greater policy say. When Chrysler faced bankruptcy, the United Auto Workers union was given a seat on the company board, allowing it not just a vote but access to inside information. But once Chrysler’s shares rebounded, that representation was not renewed, and the UAW did not protest. While employee stock ownership plans have become common, unions generally view them as fringe benefits rather than vehicles for controlling management. In cases where workers actually gain control of management, they may be at odds with unions.


During the decade following World War II, unions won close to three quarters of their attempts to gain recognition. In recent years, their success rate has dwindled to less than half. Not the least reason is that companies have become more aggressive in their efforts to keep unions out. Studies of several hundred firms by Kate Bronfenbrenner and Tom Juravich found that 71 percent hired anti-union consultants and that 42 percent formed opposition committees, while 30 percent fired pro-union workers.8

Managements have been greatly aided by court and NLRB rulings that have expanded the scope of what employers can say and do.9 But firms still cannot threaten to close or move a plant if the union wins, nor can they promise preferment to workers who work against the union. So a principal service of consultants is to tell companies how far they can go in opposing a union and remain within the law. Alfred DeMaria has a successful legal practice devoted to keeping unions out. His Combating the Resurgence of Organized Labor: A Modern Guide to Union Prevention analyzes NLRB rulings to show employers how to stop just short of infractions. His book is filled with sample posters, speeches, and fliers. The company can invite employees to an “election eve” party, he writes, so long as it is specified that the aim is solely “to unwind and have fun,” and that “attendance is entirely voluntary.”

Still, DeMaria says, “you may not request employees to report the identity of union sympathizers” or “visit the employees at their homes in order to persuade them to vote against the union (unless you have a practice of socializing with employees at their homes.)” He also provides permissible wordings for speeches or mailings:

I don’t think any of you want to have a shop steward around whose job it is to speak for you.

Would it surprise you to know that the average union increase negotiated through collective bargaining last year was only a 3.0 percent increase? Most of you have experienced greater increases than that.

Unions bring the possibility of… superseniority privileges to union favorites.

The union can call you out on a strike for higher wages. If they do, they probably will not tell you: Workers who strike for higher wages and benefits can be permanently replaced [and] do not have the right to return to work until their replacements leave or similar new jobs are created.

He has advice on “dealing with disloyal supervisors” and weeding out job applicants who may have “pro-union sympathies.” He gives the name of a firm that “specializes in providing security for strike-bound companies.”

Under the law, a union can call for a certification election once it can show that at least 30 percent of the employees have signed authorization cards. DeMaria encourages employers to remind workers that those cards are not binding and that when they cast secret ballots they can always vote no. A major premise of the book is that time is on management’s side: workers who might have been attracted to the union can be turned away by shrewdly crafted arguments. All the while, company lawyers will enter successive pleas, first to delay and then to challenge recognition votes, all of which the union must reply to at considerable cost. Another, unstated, premise is that companies usually have larger legal budgets.10

If we credit polls or other surveys, there is little reason to believe that the majority of workers who don’t belong to unions have much fellow feeling for the minority who do. Many see unions as mired in special pleading, if not corruption, with little concern for those not on their rolls. And while most elected Democrats still defend union interests, not many highlight those votes when they publish their records.

So it might seem that this lack of sympathy could be exploited to diminish even further the power of unions. Clearly, this was the view of those who sponsored Proposition 226, described as “paycheck protection,” which was placed on California ballots in last June’s primary. According to this initiative, union dues could be spent for political purposes only if members submitted a card each year giving their consent. (Hitherto, those who did not want their money so used were allowed to opt out.) That union funds should only be used on behalf of consenting members seemed sensible on its face. Indeed, early polls had as many as seven in ten Californians supporting the measure.

Along with charges of corruption, criticizing the electoral power of “labor bosses” has long been a staple of anti-union rhetoric. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, between January 1997 and October 1998 unions spent $39 million for political purposes. While this may sound like a lot, it amounts to $1.38 per member per year. During those twenty-one months, the political contributions of corporate and trade associations totaled $460 million, or twelve times the union figure. Yet to my knowledge no one has proposed that stockholders should have to consent before companies write political checks.

At all events, “union money” must have seemed an easy target, as the early poll results bore out. Yet, in the end, Proposition 226 lost, winning only 47 percent of the votes. That a majority of voters came to the unions’ aid, in a state where only 16 percent of the workforce is organized, led to a search for explanations. Exit polls conducted by the Los Angeles Times found that women were more likely than men to side with the unions, as were voters who had graduate degrees. In many ways, the polls mirrored the new composition of unions. In California, almost half of the members—47.4 percent—are public employees. (The national figure is 41.9 percent.) Thus when members talked with their non-union friends, the voices were as likely to be those of teachers and librarians as truck drivers or stevedores. The 23,000-member firefighters’ union, while largely Republican, opposed this proposition; so did the screenwriters and actors guilds. In California, as in the country as a whole, growing numbers of union members have master’s degrees, since more governmental jobs now require that credential.11

To the extent that unions are representing more and more members of the middle class, they may find themselves able to gain wider support. If nothing else, the outcome showed that many voters were disinclined to give an additional advantage to employers, who were already the biggest political spenders in the state. Most Californians may be middle class, but this does not necessarily line them up on the side of the bosses. In retrospect, the defeat of Proposition 226 in June can be seen as foreshadowing the Democratic victories of Gray Davis and Barbara Boxer five months later.


At Cornell University, where I taught for sixteen years, all members of the faculty have their own “personal” salaries. (Integral to this system is that no one knows what anyone else is paid.) The sum you receive represents how much the university values you. Thus if it wants to keep you, your salary is set high enough to keep you happy and ensure you remain on the campus. Still, the only way to get a serious raise is to arrange an offer from another school, even if you have no wish to move. (This tactic of course carries risks, such as hearing the dean murmur, “We’re sure you’ll be happy there.”) While I thought when I was there that I was getting more than most, I often found myself brooding about how I compared with my colleagues.

At the City University of New York, at whose Queens College I now teach, everyone who joins the faculty must agree to the terms of employment accepted by our union, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. (While one need not become a member, a sum equal to union dues will still be deducted from each paycheck and turned over to the union; nor are those who opt out allowed to negotiate separate salaries for themselves.) I receive precisely the same salary (which is public information) as do my 162 colleagues on the same “step.”
If a teacher cites an invitation from another school, our dean will
point to the contract, which makes it clear she can’t match a higher
offer. (The union contract provides for several
“distinguished” professorships, awarded by faculty committees, for
which senior faculty must apply, and which add an extra $20,000 to the
top-step salary.) Am I bothered by those who shirk their duties and
still get the top scale? Not really; there aren’t enough of them to
warrant indignation. One agreeable result is that I find I no longer
fret over whether I am getting less than some colleagues or if others
are about to pass me.

What also needs noting is that fewer people than one might think have
reputations or records that will bring them premium pay. Even at
star-studded universities, there are many professors who have ceased
doing interesting work or are no longer deemed at the top of their
fields. Much the same can be said about the situations at law firms,
investment houses, and on executive floors generally. By no means
everyone is a star, as can be seen during downturns or when two firms
combine and people with six-figure incomes are let go. The prospects
for a renewal of unions will depend on how many Americans feel
confident that their talents are so in demand that they can, on their
own, command the wage or salary they believe they deserve.

This Issue

February 18, 1999