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Not With a Bang, But a Whimper: The Long, Slow Death Spiral of America’s Labor Movement

Many commentators have correctly observed that the reelection of Governor Scott Walker is a grave blow to unions, especially public sector unions. They went all in to defeat Walker and, despite the great outpouring of protest last year against his collective bargaining bill, he won by a greater margin this time than he did in 2010.

But something else was exemplified by the Wisconsin results. It’s not that unions can’t win a defensive fight. Ohio proved otherwise—a resounding 23 percent rollback of an anti-collective bargaining measure for public employees similar to that enacted in Wisconsin. (Alec MacGillis has discussed some of the reasons why Ohio’s results differed from those in Wisconsin.) And it’s not as if unions don’t still have significant political strength. Barack Obama and other Democrats need the union household vote (roughly 25 percent of the electorate) to vote Democratic at its customary 60 to 65 percent in several key Midwestern states (and Nevada, too) in order to win.

No, the real underlying story is that unions are losing their institutional legitimacy in modern America. The problem isn’t that most people hate unions. The problem for unions is that most people don’t care about them, or think about them, at all.

SURE, CONSERVATIVE activists and plutocrats do think about unions. They understand that unions put more money and power into workers’ hands, at the expense of management and owners—and more money into the hands of Democratic politicians, at the expense of Republicans. Now that the Soviet Union has fallen, there is no more consistent trope of conservative ideology stretching back over a century than a nearly pathological hatred of unions.

What’s different now is that the cord connecting union organizing and activism to broad currents of the American public has been frayed nearly to the breaking point. Unions always had powerful enemies, but they also had a broad institutional legitimacy grounded in their ubiquitous presence within economics, politics, and even culture. (Who can imagine today a hit Broadway show like The Pajama Game of the 1950s, or a popular film like Norma Rae of the 1970s?) When union membership peaked in the mid 1950s at about 35 percent, it was disproportionately weighted to the Northeast, the Midwest, and California. But that meant that in those regions—the most populous in the country—either a worker was in a union himself/herself, had a family member in a union, or, at least, had a friend or neighbor in a union. People, for better or worse, knew what unions did and understood them to be an almost ordinary part of the workings of democratic capitalism.

Most important, they knew, for better or worse, that unions had power. Sixty years ago, the UAW or the Mineworkers or the Steelworkers, not only deeply affected crucial sectors of an industrial economy, they also demanded respect from broader society—demands made manifest in the “political strikes” they organized, whether legally or not, to protest the issues of the day. Millions supported these strikes, millions despised them—but nobody could ignore them. The charismatic leaders of these unions, men like Walter Reuther and John L. Lewis, were household names to most Americans. Jimmy Hoffa was thought by many to be a “thug”, but his union, the Teamsters, could stop interstate commercial transportation in the country. Such was the power that John Sweeney, the former president of the AFL-CIO, sought to evoke when he assumed office in the mid 1990s on a platform of union reform and growth. Sweeney was not a great public speaker, but he did use one great line that always got boisterous cheers before audiences of union members (including me). He would speak about the enemies of the labor movement and say something like, “Well, they’re calling me a ‘big union boss.’ All I can say is: it’s a lot better to be a big union boss than a small union boss.” 

Today, by contrast, with several notable exceptions—the housekeeping workers in Las Vegas’s casinos, the UPS drivers, the hotel workers of New York City, pockets of militancy among the Latino immigrant community in Los Angeles—the sources of union strength are diminished. Membership is much smaller and declining, workers aren’t aggressively seeking to join unions. And the most famous union president today is probably the recently retired Andy Stern of SEIU. Stern has had a 60 Minutes segment dedicated to him, and has been featured in major magazine profiles; he was a frequent visitor to the Obama White House; he is smart and dynamic. But how many Americans today know who Stern is? Five percent? That many? The fact is, the SEIU, as resourceful and influential as it is, can’t make a serious claim to power over the American economy—janitors and nurse’s aides today can’t bring the economy to a halt, as autoworkers, steel workers, and truckers could claim to be able to do in the 1950s.

This is a result of structural economic changes in postwar America, but it has had immediate political and social effects. In 1947, Harry Truman unsuccessfully vetoed the Taft Hartley Act, which restricted tactics for union growth and codified those limitations into federal law. Truman wasn’t particularly supportive of unions—he had threatened to conscript the military to break a railway strike the previous year—but he understood that the strongest bulwark of his political support was organized labor. In our day, by contrast, Barack Obama could not even bestir himself to more than nominally support a pro-labor card check bill. The causes of this failure weren’t personal, but structural: There is a vast difference between the over 30 percent of the workforce unionized in Truman’s time, and the less than 12 percent today (and a microscopic 7 percent in the private sector.)

Tellingly, this diminishment has not been accompanied by rage, but indifference or even befuddlement. Unions are like manual typewriters, oh hell, electric ones—pretty cool in their time, but who has even seen one today? Several days ago, Joe Nocera, the New York Times columnist, expressed a mild astonishment that unions just might be part of the solution to income inequality in this country. Nocera acknowledged that he was from a union town, Providence, and had two parents who were unionized teachers. But, as he noted, (without even a nod to the standards of the Newspaper Guild, from which he has benefited), “….I have never been a member of a union, and I viewed them with mild disdain.”

It’s this head scratching perplexity about the very point of unions—not the corporate and rightwing anti-labor rage, which is eternal—that is snuffing unions out like the air. Decline has begot decline in an endless feedback loop—the workers don’t have familial or community links to unions anymore and, thus, do not think unions are, even potentially central to their lives; the middle class professionals and writers aren’t, via the genuine power of a Hoffa or Reuther and their membership, exposed to a culture of union power anymore; and the politicians aren’t nearly as dependent on the money and votes of union members.

A MEMORY FROM my slothful days as a graduate student some 30 years ago: I’m sitting around my apartment watching day-time television, The Phil Donahue Show, on a day when the guest was the head of the machinist’s union, William Winpisinger. Already, labor was in decline, but the machinists were a million member union at the time and they patrolled key military and commercial companies like General Dynamics and Boeing. And Winpisinger was a piece of work: a blustery, belligerent, union militant.

As always, the conflict formula for talk shows eventually took hold, and Winpisinger received a barrage of hostile questions from Donahue’s audience. So, he stood up—a big, bald headed guy—and went to the front of the stage to take the attacks head on. It was great television, and “Wimpy,” as he was known in the movement, was anything but. One guy stood up and said something like, “Why should I care about your membership? They’re making more money than I am, they have better benefits than I do. Who needs you or them?”

Wimpy’s response was to turn on the guy—again, this is from memory, but it’s of a piece with his career—and bellow, “What are you yelling at me for, you jerk. Rather than attack workers who have organized themselves into a union and are doing better than you because of it, why don’t you organize a union yourself?! Then you can get better pay and benefits, too!” Somewhere in West Philadelphia, a lazy grad student cheered.

Yes, why don’t people organize their own unions, despite all the risks, rather than resent those who are union members? That was the question then, and that is the question now. But, mostly people aren’t even angry enough to ask it anymore. In his great and enduring work, The Making of the English Working Class of 1963, the British historian, E.P. Thompson, wrote of the emergence of early19th century British working class consciousness. Thompson showed how each generation of British workers of that period passed along to their sons and neighbors a broad world- view that asserted class and national pride. It is an American form of that historical memory that we have forgotten. There is now only a very thinly described transmission of working class solidarity and the role unions play in inculcating it.

We would be well served, however, to remember the power that union leaders like Wimpy—like Reuther and Lewis before him—once wielded. That power pissed a lot of people off, but inspired others. The results in Wisconsin ratify that we’re about to find out what it’s like when people like him no longer piss off or inspire pretty much anybody. There has never been an advanced capitalist country with as weakened and small a union movement as today’s United States. (There are very few union members in France, for example, but French unions still have the vast majority of the workforce under union contract.) And according to academic evidence cited in Tim Noah’s recent book The Great Divergence, which Nocera uses as the occasion for his column (and which I reviewed in The American Prospect), the decline of the labor movement is one of the primary causes of American income and wealth inequality, particularly among male workers.

If conservative politicians and their wealthy supporters can replicate Walker’s project in other states, the public sector unions will wither as the private sectors unions already have. If so, I predict that many Americans clueless about unions today may grow to regret losing a world they barely knew existed.

Rich Yeselson lives and writes in Washington, DC. He worked in the labor movement for 23 years.