In 1945, 35 percent of American workers belonged to a union. Unions helped define the labor market by negotiating wages, pushing for reforms like 40 hours work weeks and paid vacations, and organizing strikes when worker demands weren’t met. Unions existed as more than just institutions, they were a fundamental part of American culture.
Today, just 10 percent of Americans belong to unions, and their cultural impact has been severely reduced down to a few core industries. There are a number of causal reasons to explain this decline. America became more individualized, our democracy shifted towards oligarchy, and globalization gutted the U.S. manufacturing base.
The lack of unionization in America is the exception and not the rule in the developed world. America’s 10.7 percent union membership is well below the OECD average of 16.7 percent. Scandinavian countries blow the U.S. out of the water. For comparison, Iceland has 86.4 percent membership and more than 65 percent of Swedish workers belong to a union.
The numbers are extremely concerning. Unions and their ability to organize are vital to workers’ rights, and they’ve provided virtually all the protections that we enjoy in the workplace today. In a time of growing inequality and job displacement from automation, Americans need collective bargaining now more than ever.
More surprising than the decline itself, in many ways, is the fact our politicians have largely chosen to ignore the issue. Sure, every election cycle Democrats tout their endorsements from AFL-CIO or United Steelworkers, but they rarely spend political capital making promises to strengthen unions.
Even Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, whose entire campaign hinged on policy proposals designed to restore the middle class, had relatively little to say about the loss of union organizing power. Sanders’ approach to labor was largely a top down approach. He made promises that he, as commander and chief, would push to raise the minimum wage and guarantee paid family leave, but he rarely spoke of labor unions doing the same within various industries.
His “political revolution” rhetoric weren’t always aligned with the theory of change he was actually advancing. Sure, it’s theoretically within the realm of possibility that a democratic socialist in the White House could convince a center right Congress to balance the parity between labor and business by guaranteeing healthcare to all and rewriting corporate friendly trade deals, but it’s extremely unlikely. It’s infinitely more realistic that a bottom up collectivized labor movement would result in the changes the Senator wants to see.
This isn’t an indictment of Bernie Sanders, who has been a life-long advocate of unions, but instead one of the political establishment when it comes to labor. It’s become bad politics to speak about change that comes from the bottom. Instead, Presidential politics has become a game of promising to fix all of the countries woes from the Oval Office. This is evidenced by our two current nominees, one who promises to make America great again and the other who promises to break down all the barriers that hold us back.
We’re on the verge of major shakeups in our job market in the form of automation that are going to have major ramifications if we don’t supplement them with an economic and sociopolitical investment in protecting workers. Some of these changes need to come from federal and states governments devoting resources to job creation and job retraining, but they also need to come from workers themselves collectivizing to restore negotiating power.
Americans are producing more for less pay. We work longer hours than any other industrialized country in the world. The rich are getting richer as the middle class is shrinking. In a time where we need strong unions as much as ever before, we just hit a 93 year low in membership. If we want a labor market that is fit to compete in the ever changing globalized marketplace, we need to start a discussion on how we restore American unions to preserve the strong middle class that made us the world’s greatest empire.