Combating the Resurgence of Organized Labor: A Modern Guide to Union Prevention
Graduate Student Unionization Controversy at Yale University
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…
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