While researching this paper I came across a very interesting article. In the November 2000 issue of Reason magazine, Michael McMenamin leads with the following paragraph:
Organized labor was a one-century phenomenon. Look it up. Union members were only 9.5% of the private sector work force in 1999, down from a peak of 37% 40 years earlier. The last time union membership was so low was in 1902, when the union members were 9.3% of the private sector work force… The current union leaders, led by AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, have no realistic plans to change course. They are presiding over the final, terminal stage of organized labor. And they like things just the way they are. (McMenamin 2000)
This paper will attempt to answer the following question. What are the unions doing to combat this decline in membership? It will also discuss the various reasons for the decline in membership.
The rise of labor can be attributed to fundamental change in the economy, labor force, and political conditions. Around the turn of the 20th century unions were organized around skilled trades and crafts: bricklayers, plumbers, and carpenters. After Samuel Gompers took over as head of the AFL, the unions quickly began mobilizing the workers in markets that had been created by the recent industrialization. Coal, lumber, and autoworkers were soon under the umbrella of organized labor. These non-skilled factory workers were largely comprised of a diverse mix of immigrants, native, male and female, along with ethnic and racial diversity.
Unionization proliferated during the 1930s aided by the passage of the Wagner Act of 1935. The Wagner Act establishes the current system of unionization in which the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) supervises closed-ballot, elections held at the work place for workers deciding whether of not to unionize. According to the NLRB, by the late 1940s the AFL and CIO were winning close to three fourths of their union-representation elections. The unions reached their apex in 1954 when they represented 39 percent of the private sector workforce. (Cornfield 1999)
When the AFL and CIO merged in 1955 union membership had reached 17million. However, as a share of the labor force, it had dropped to 33 percent. (Hurd 1998) The union reached its peak membership in the early 1970s at over 23 million, yet the percentage of the labor force continued to drop. By 1995 union membership was 16 million, and by 1999 the unions made up only 9.5 percent of the private sector workforce. The decline is quite intriguing from an organizational perspective.
The By-Product theory of group organization states that large groups are not formed for lobbying purposes. The group has to offer selective incentives to its members to keep them. Lobbying is one of the by-products of a group of people who share a common collective interest. The by-product theory seems to fit the labor unions. As does Robert Salisbury’s exchange theory. The exchange theory says that interest groups are formed as a relation between an entrepreneur/organizer who invests in a set of benefits which are offered to prospective members. If one looks at the unions as exchanging selective benefits with its members, then the nature of the benefits could point to the decline in membership.
There are numerous reasons offered for the steady decline in union membership. There have been changes in the labor laws of the U.S. making it harder for unions to hold and win elections. (Clawson 1999) Globalization has led to the jobs formerly held by union workers being moved to newly industrialized countries where labor is much cheaper. (Borgers 1996) Some blame the unions themselves for a lack of effort and even a lack of will when it comes to organizing new members. A 1996 AFL-CIO report puts it the following way, “instead of organizing, unions hunkered down” and “collectively chose the shortsighted strategy of trying to protect current contracts of members instead of organizing new members.” (AFL-CIO 2001)
Public opinion and its shift away from the unions have been attributed, by some, to the decline in membership. According to the Gallup organization, approval for organized labor has never fallen below 55% (which happened in 1979 and 1981) and had actually risen to 65% by 1999. Gallup also placed organized labor alongside big business and big government and asked people which one was the biggest threat to the country. In 1965 organized labor was a close second to big government. Labor received 29% to big governments 35%. Organized labor as a threat steadily declined and by 1999 only 8% of the people viewed it as the biggest threat behind big business at 24% and big government at 65%. (Cornfield 1999) The declining view of big labor as a threat could explain the rising approval ratings. Those who think that the unions have fallen far enough that they are no longer a threat could offer an approval even though they may personally disapprove of them. It is analogous to attitude towards small communist countries such as Korea and Cuba. While many do not approve of the way in which the countries operate, they no longer view them as a viable threat to the democratic nations.
While the public opinion towards unions has softened in the recent years, unions still face a monumental task in trying to regain, or even maintain membership levels. In order to maintain their current proportion of the workforce, unions must organize 300,000 workers a year. In order to even begin to approach the previous levels of membership, unions would have to organize at least a million new workers a year. (Clawson 1999) The question is whether or not the unions, in their current form, will be able to make such a drastic resurgence, or will the image and basic structures of the unions need to be overhauled to meet the needs of the current workers?
Before examining the future of the unions, it is necessary to examine the make-up of the workers in the current economy. The American economy has moved from a production economy to a service economy. Fewer and fewer people are working blue collar jobs where they are expected to stay in one place and retire after raising two kids and paying off their mortgage. They current breed of worker is a white collar or service type worker. They are quick to move to a new job, and are rarely loyal to a single employer. The rise in the area of consulting has also created a large and growing group of part-time professionals who are loyal only for short periods of time to those who pay their fees. One of the problems that labor is facing in the current market is that the labor laws were designed to protect those workers who full-time and long-term with a single employer. (AFL-CIO 2001)
Many of today’s workers have no experience with labor tactics and have not experienced the conditions, which drove many in the past to easy organization. They understand the unions as a servicing institution rather than a vehicle for collective action. (Clawson 1999) To put is simply, they are satisfied with their current careers and future prospects and feel that the unions are not able to help them. The formula Dv+S*C defines the condition for a person to contribute in a collective action problem. Dv is the total value of a persons contribution plus the contributions of others. S is the value of the selective benefits, and C is the cost of contributing. For many of today’s contemporary workers the costs of contributing to a collective action involving union organization far outweighs the benefits. In fact, many workers feel closer to those in management than at any time before. Employee involvement programs such as quality circles and employee advisory committees are allowing workers to feel as if they have more of a say in management’s decisions.
The selective incentives offered by the by the unions in the past were job security, and safe and stable work environment, insurance, and a pension program. Many of these selective benefits such as pension, and safe work environments have been supplied or mandated by the government. Most companies offer insurance so they will remain competitive in the market for good workers. In order to entice new workers into a union organization, the nature of their benefits are going to have to change. The unions also offer solidary benefits to its members. The camaraderie among early union members was very strong. They were united for a purpose, to make the working environment a better place. Today’s workers do not feel as close to their co-workers nor does there exist the discontent towards management to such a large extent.
When looking at the declining membership from a collective action standpoint, a few different reasons for the decline stand out. Over the past forty years there has been a proliferation in specialized interest groups throughout the United States. Whether a persons concern are saving the environment or protecting drinking water standards, there is a group that they can join. As discussed in the previous paragraph, many workers no longer feel as if the unions can help further their career. The solidary benefits offered by these special interests can be more fulfilling to people than being a member of a union. Organized labor has been ever increasingly involved in political issues. They run issue advocacy ads and formally endorse candidates. They also get involved in issues that do not directly concern them. They have participated in coalitions with other groups in hopes to garner the other group’s support when it is needed. For the most part, but not always, organized labor will lean toward the democratic left, supporting the left’s agenda.
Part of the problem with this practice is that the workers involved in the various unions do not all have the same political leanings or attitudes. Some workers may actively withdraw from the union because of this problem. However, others may want to support a collective action that is much more focused. According to the IRS, the average union dues per month are $19. (IRS 2001) The average monthly dues for an environmental organization are $23.50. (Johnson 1998) Perhaps the union members, who feel that the union is not playing a big part in advancing their career or promoting their specific interests, would rather give money to a smaller, more specialized group.
Some have a dismal outlook when it comes to the future of unions’ benefits. Kenneth Sheets calls the trend toward new benefits “bottom fishing and gimmicks.” (Sheets 1990) The unions have experimented with credit cards, money markets, and English lessons as a way to entice new members and retain existing ones. They have also offered supplemental programs such as life insurance, legal services, and mail order prescription plans to the members. (Sheets 1990)
The unions have also attempted to organize areas that they have appeared to be previously unconcerned with. More efforts toward organization of government workers and the ever-growing service industry have shown nominal results. The large pool of migrant farm workers offers potential, and problems for the unions. The vast majority of the migrant workers are unorganized and work in substandard conditions. The field would appear to be ripe for organization by the unions. However, the nature of the industry has slowed union advancement. (Lipset 1996) The migrant workers are comprised of a large number of illegal aliens who are not willing to draw any attention to themselves. Also, the legal workers are fearful that if they organize and upset the employers, they will be replaced by illegals who will be less apt to complain.
Part of the reason for the decline of the membership in the unions is the declining effectiveness of the strike. The strike has been the paradigm of collective action by unions in the past. The strike process was challenged when employers began taking the offensive. (Clawson 1999) The Union busting by the companies involved hiring scabs to restore production and break the union down by attrition. The effectiveness of the unions to strike reached a low point in 1981 when Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers, who struck despite having a no strike clause in their contract.
With the decline in the effectiveness of the strike, many unions focused their attention on finding and developing alternate sources of power. The stance of the unions seemed to be; if we cannot hurt the company by striking alone, we will employ help and hurt them in other ways. One practice used was called the “corporate campaign”. The corporate campaign was an attempt to influence investors, lenders, customers, suppliers, and stockholders into putting pressure on the employer. (Hurd 1998) Also used in this attempt to apply pressure were government regulatory agencies, elected officials, and community allies. The external pressure was to increase the cost of the employer’s resistance and make them more likely to settle.
Another area the unions have tried to reform or restructure their model is in the area of organizing. Because of the lack of fear of, and even hostility towards the unions by some employers, and “because the law permits employers to actively intervene in the election process, the fact that a majority of workers at a given site want representation is no longer enough to achieve certification.” (Clawson 1999) This happens despite the intent of federal labor laws favoring the unions’. In order to focus more attention of organizing, the AFL-CIO created the Organizing Institute.
The OI was created to train people, including many recent college graduates, to be organizers. (Foerster 1996) OI training focused on having the organizers visit the workers in their homes. The OI workers are professional organizers who act as mercenaries, moving from one location to the next wherever they are needed. Another way to groom perspective members is by giving out associate memberships. A union worker may have a friend who works for a non-union company, but is interested in the union. The friend may receive an associate membership, allowing them to attend union meetings and have access to union organizers. The theory is that they will spread the word to their co-workers and a pro-union attitude will develop before the union even expresses interest to the employer about organizing. (Foerster 1996)
The nature of workers, employers, and relations between the two has changed. The change from an industrial to a service economy has limited the potential percentage of “well-paid” workers that the unions can organize. There is a vast amount of fast food and other low paid service industry workers that are available for organizing, but how viable of an option is it? The structure of a union is modeled for an employee that stays at one job for a long time. Very few people retire from McDonalds as head fryer operator. The potential union workers in this area do not view their job as permanent, but as a step up the ladder or entry-level position. Once they have climbed a few rungs on the ladder they will not feel as if the union can help them.
The unions have slowly moved from a model that was born out of need, to a model that more resembles a servicing organization. The workers of today no longer see the unions as the answer to their problems; if in act, they notice them at all. The cost of contributing to an organized labor model seems to be far outweighing the benefits of membership for most contemporary workers. It is doubtful, given the current economic trends, that organized labor will ever return to their glory days of the fifties. For now, it seems the best that organized labor can hope for is overcome the dinosaur image and hope to be needed again.
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