For the last quarter century, corporate America has been at war against the labor movement. After a long period in which unions were an accepted part of the economic and political landscape, most corporations adopted a much more hostile attitude toward unions. Where unions already were present, employers sought to weaken or break them. In workplaces without unions, employers were prepared to do whatever was necessary to prevent workers from organizing.
This anti-union drive has largely enjoyed the support of the government. For example, it is now a standard practice for employers to fire workers engaged in an organizing drive. A study by John Schmitt and Ben Zipperer, of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, found one in five organizers will be fired during an average organizing drive. Such firings are illegal, but enforcement is sufficiently slow, and the penalties sufficiently small, that most employees eagerly embrace this effective anti-union tactic.
Government policies have also supported anti-union practices in other ways. A main purpose of trade agreements like NAFTA was to make it as easy as possible to relocate factories overseas. The high dollar policy Robert Rubin initiated in the Clinton era also put US manufacturing, and its unionized workers, at a huge disadvantage. A 30 percent over-valued dollar effectively imposes a 30 percent tariff on goods exported from the United States, while providing a subsidy of 30 percent on goods imported into the United States.
As a result of these policies, much manufacturing has, in fact, been moved overseas in the last quarter century, giving the country a trade deficit of more than $700 billion annually. And the jobs lost in manufacturing have been disproportionately union jobs. While the unionization rate in manufacturing was more than 40 percent in the sixties, in 2006 it was just 11.6 percent, less than the 12 percent average for all workers, although still somewhat higher than the 7.4 percent average for the private sector as a whole.
The weakening of the labor movement is not just bad news for the workers who lose union jobs. According to polling data, there are tens of millions of workers who would like to be represented by a union at their workplace, but don't currently have the option. The best way to get a guide as to how many workers would be in unions if they could opt to do so, in the absence of employer threats and harassment, is to look at the unionization rate in the public sector.
While public sector managers are not generally friendly to unions, they can't fire union organizers or use the other harsh anti-union tactics that are now standard practice in the private sector. As a result, more than 36 percent of public sector employees are members of unions. Given the freedom to choose, it is likely a comparable share of private sector workers would also be in unions. This would imply an additional 30 million workers in unions.
In addition to directly benefiting the workers they represent, unions also benefit the larger workforce and society as a whole. In an industry with a strong union presence, non-union firms know they must maintain comparable wages and benefits if they are want to keep their workers from joining a union. The decline of unions has undoubtedly been an important factor in the growth of inequality in the last quarter century.
Unions have also been essential to a wide range of political initiatives over the post-war period. Programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start would not have been possible without the strong support of the labor movement. The same is true of the key civil rights legislation of the sixties. More recently, the labor movement was at the center of the effort to prevent President Bush from privatizing Social Security. It will be difficult to make much progress on a wide range of social and economic issues without the support of a strong labor movement.
Congress is currently debating a bill that would take an important step toward re-establishing the right of workers to join a union. The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) would require a company to recognize a union once a majority of workers have signed a card indicating they want to be represented by a union. This gets around the election process, which gives employers a chance to intimidate workers and fire the leaders of an organizing effort. (Under the EFCA, workers can still request an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.)
The EFCA would restore some meaning to the right to organize. The bill that has been passed by the House by is currently being blocked by a Republican filibuster in the Senate. While the EFCA is not likely to become law under this Congress (President Bush would almost certainly veto the bill even if it did pass), progressives should recognize the importance of legislation. The right to organize is not the concern of just a small special interest group; it is a basic right that should concern us all. In the same vein, all progressives have an interest in seeing a strong labor movement. For this reason, the EFCA and other measures that level the playing field between labor and management should be top items on the progressive agenda.