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Union Density in the United States Continues to Decline: What Does this Mean for American Democracy?

Feb 5, 2020

If you’ve been paying attention to the news about labor over the last year or so, you’d think we were in an era of a resurgent union movement.  We’ve seen a wave of inspiring, militant teachers’ strikes from West Virginia to Los Angeles along with a successful autoworkers’ strike against General Motors and lots of other signs of life from grocery workers’ actions to pushes for minimum wage increases across America.  Unfortunately, the latest numbers on union membership paint a more disappointing picture.

As the Washington Post reported last week:

Union membership in the American workforce was down to 10.3 percent from 10.5 percent in 2018, according to statistics released Wednesday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The continued slide shows how energy and momentum around the labor movement is not translating into equivalent growth for unions, whose memberships have fallen sharply as a percentage of the U.S. workforce over the past roughly 40 years. In 1983, unions represented about 1 out of 5 workers; now it’s 1 in 10 workers.

Of course, those alarming numbers for the labor movement have not been helped by the fact that we are currently in one of the most hostile moments for unions in contemporary American history.  We have an anti-labor President who has loaded the National Labor Relations Board with enemies of the union movement, an emboldened corporate sector happy to aggressively squash efforts to organize, state governments attacking unions, and an anti-labor Supreme Court.  In sum, the deck is stacked against unionization in so many ways that it represents a long-term existential threat to the labor movement.

But all the Trump administration’s efforts are really just the culmination of decades of assaults on labor from the billionaire class, the corporate world and their allies on the political right, and, in too many cases, the neoliberal Democratic elite.  To put it bluntly, the American labor movement has long been living with a Republican Party bent on their extinction and a Democratic Party that can best be described as a weak ally/occasional enemy.  Add to this decades of neoliberal globalization and growing plutocracy and the landscape looks pretty bleak.

As Doug Henwood observes in the Left Business Observer,“Come the next recession and the decline is likely to be worse as corporations and governments look to cut costs.”  He also smartly points out that all of labor’s problems are not external, “There are a lot of things wrong with American unions. Most organize poorly, if at all. Politically they function mainly as ATMs and free labor pools for the Democratic party without getting much in return.”  Nonetheless, Henwood rightly argues, unions remain essential despite their flaws because, “there’s no way to end the 40-year war on the US working class without getting union membership up, so these density stats are nothing but bad news.”

If you are looking for good news for American workers, you can find it with the workers themselves.  As the aforementioned recent labor militancy shows, workers understand what time it is and know that, despite the odds, unions represent the only real tool ordinary Americans have ever had to address economic inequality and exploitation.  As the Post piece notes:

Public support for unions appears to be growing. Some 64 percent of people said they approved of unions last year, among the highest numbers the company has collected in the last 50 years, according to Gallup. And nearly half of nonunion workers say they would join a union if given the opportunity to do so — a 40-year high.

Thus, we are living in crucial times for labor.  American workers will either help oust Trump and keep organizing with the knowledge that just electing a Democrat will surely not save them, or they will continue to see their economic and political power vanish more rapidly than many of them probably realize.  We could see an upsurge in worker activism and a democratic expansion or a long-term victory for American oligarchy.

Let’s hope that California’s role as the leader of the resistance both in terms of its defiance of Trump policy and its bucking the trend toward de-unionization with an actual increase in union density is a sign of a more hopeful future.

Another good omen is the previously mentioned surge in union activism from teachers across the country.  Despite the most recent assault from the Supreme Court, union density is holding firm and even growing in education unions.  Perhaps the spark we saw in the strike wave of the last two years is the beginning of a resurgence of labor in other sectors and other regions across the United States.  Those of us in strong, active unions can serve as a beacon for the rest of the country.

There is no time better or more urgent than the present.


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