America Needs to Empower Workers Again (Opinion)Breaking News
tags: unions, inequality, labor history
Labor activists hoped that the unionization vote at Amazon’s Bessemer, Ala., warehouse would be a turning point, a reversal in the decades-long trend of union decline. What the vote showed, instead, was the continuing effectiveness of the tactics employers have repeatedly used to defeat organizing efforts.
But union advocates shouldn’t give up. The political environment that gave anti-union employers a free hand may be changing — the decline of unionization was, above all, political, not a necessary consequence of a changing economy. And America needs a union revival if we’re to have any hope of reversing spiraling inequality.
Let’s start by talking about why union membership declined in the first place, and why it’s still possible to hope for a revival.
America used to have a powerful labor movement. Union membership soared between 1934 and the end of World War II. During the 1950s roughly a third of nonagricultural workers were union members. As late as 1980 unions still represented around a quarter of the work force. And strong unions had a big impact even on nonunion workers, setting pay norms and putting nonunion employers on notice that they had to treat their workers relatively well lest they face an organizing drive.
But union membership plunged, especially in the private sector, during the 1980s, and has continued to fall ever since.
Why did this happen? I often encounter assertions that the decline was inevitable in the face of automation and globalization — basically, that unions couldn’t deliver higher wages once employers had the option of replacing uppity workers with robots or moving production overseas. But the evidence suggests otherwise.
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