There will be much noise at Labor Day breakfasts tomorrow as politicians pay fealty and labor thumps its chest, talking about the great battles won and the great ones still to come. Three weeks hence may well see another victory, as union members successfully push one of their own, Marty Walsh (until recently, head of the Building Trades Council) to the front of a crowded field and into the finals for Boston mayor.
Yet the noise means little, and the sense of power is an illusion. Labor is on the ropes. The fault is not its thuggish, pinky-ring stereotype — good and dedicated men and women have ascended to leadership — but deeper causes. The economy that gave unions their birth has changed dramatically. A once-vital movement now seems obsolete and counterproductive.
Organized labor was at its heyday in the 1950s, when unions represented more than a third of all employees. Today, the numbers have plummeted. In 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 11.3 percent of all workers were members, the latest in annual declines extending back for decades. And if one pokes through the data, the news for unions is even worse. Unions don’t much appeal to the young, for instance — only 9.5 percent of workers 34 and younger are members, while in older age cohorts the representation is much higher. Further, unionization is largely confined to the government (35.9 percent). In the private sector (6.6 percent), unions are now almost irrelevant, strongest in old-line, slow-growing industries such as utilities (24.7 percent) and transportation (19.9 percent) but weakest in newer, cutting-edge sectors such as finance (1.1 percent) and business services (1.2 percent).
How did the “folks who brought you the weekend” end up this way?
Unions arose in a world dominated by monopolies and oligopolies, corporations wielding extraordinary power against which individual workers had little say. The concept behind unionization was that, by banding together, employees could begin to match their bosses in clout. Kind of like Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, the two behemoths would face each other and battle away to some uneasy truce. It worked. Wages rose, workplace protections were put in place, and ordinary people — the subject of brutal conditions during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution — were finally accorded some respect.
But the economic landscape has been remade. Many of the vast and powerful businesses that once dominated the country (described by economist John Kenneth Galbraith as the New Industrial State) are now gone or enfeebled. Competition is worldwide, not just domestic, and, more profoundly, the ferment of innovation — in both new fields and old — means that any big company finds itself constantly beset by upstarts that quickly take market share. In the world of creative destruction, changing technologies, and growing fragmentation, unions — which depend upon collective power wielded against large opponents — have little ability to organize.
That doesn’t mean the issues unions once sought to address have gone away. Indeed, amid all of this tumult, employees are ever-less secure in their positions. The balance between work and the rest of one’s life seems to be getting more out of whack. And there are increasing worries about the decline or “hollowing out” of the middle class — the broad group of people who are neither poor nor rich. Someone, somewhere, needs to help solve these problems.
But it won’t be unions.
For all of the excitement local labor leaders may have over Walsh’s candidacy, there is a feared comeuppance. If Walsh is in the final, his union ties — now his greatest asset — will become his greatest liability. Taxpayers have watched as city unions have sought higher wages and shorter days and will wonder how Walsh can be an effective manager. Those who worry about schools have seen teachers’ unions mobilize to block improvements and will question Walsh’s ability to deliver.
The latter point carries great irony. Education is almost certainly a key solution to helping people compete, thrive, and reap the rewards of the new economy. Yet it is unions that are viewed as standing in the way of needed reforms. The enemy of the middle class is now the very group that was once its champion.
Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org