Big Labor's Last Stand

Big Labor's Last Stand

By David Paul Kuhn - February 27, 2011

The term "big labor" is becoming a vestige of a bygone era. Union ranks have not been this thin for 75 years, when the Wagner Act catalyzed the modern labor movement. Labor is today defending its last bulwark, civil service unions. Napoleon once said that an army marches on its stomach. Today's union battle ultimately concerns how unions feed, or fund, their army--that is, what remains of it. Labor is standing before the breach.

American unionization is a tale of two storylines, one public and one private. More than a third of private sector workers were members of a union in the mid-twentieth century. One quarter were still unionized by the late 1970s. Only about 7 percent of the private sector workforce is a member of a union today.

Public sector unions exist in another world. About one quarter of governmental employees were unionized by the early 1960s. That share surged to more than a third of government workers by the 1980s. In 1983, 36.7 percent of public employees were in a union. In 2010, the share was 36.2 percent. Over that same period, the rate of private sector unionization fell from 16.8 to 6.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In 2009, for the first time, the number of union members working for government exceeded the number of union members working for companies.

Government unions have escaped the forces that sundered their private sector counterparts: the deindustrialization of America, globalization, weakening union protections and increasing employer opposition. It's like viewing two Oldsmobile cars fresh off the line in 1983. Nearly three decades later, one is rusty and run down. The other runs today as if it is 1983. But that may soon change.

The economic forces that helped sunder private unions are now, in a different sense, looming over their public counterparts. Governors are attempting to balance state books. Wisconsin faces a $137 million shortfall this year and a $3.6 billion deficit over the next two years. But this executive (the Wisconsin governor) is targeting more than the budget gap (unions agreed to concessions). Wisconsin's management is targeting the ability, at least in part, of public sector workers to effectively unionize.

Republicans argue that only structural union reform will sustain budget reform. Labor says this is union busting of the old fashioned sort--Republicans siding against labor because labor sides with Democrats.

This is why tens of thousands of union members have protested in Madison, Wisconsin, for two weeks. It's why Democratic lawmakers fled their state to filibuster the legislation. Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker seeks to end collective bargaining for benefits and limit wages to the rate of inflation, among other measures. More states, like Ohio and Iowa, are considering similar legislation.

Collective bargaining amounts to negotiations between employers and union representatives. Its prohibition would undercut unions' leverage and organizational structure. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels prohibited collective bargaining for state employees six years ago. Daniels himself notes that state union membership subsequently declined by 90 percent. Members saved the cash that once went to their union dues. Unions lost the muscle that made it worth those dues.

There were public sector unions before they were given collective bargaining rights. But, as it did in the private sector three decades earlier, collective bargaining spurred public sector union growth in the 1960s. The loss of that power within public unions would accelerate unions' broad decline. Indeed, labor's last secure base would be breached.

"It's a very crucial moment for unions' fight," said Ileen DeVault, a Cornell professor of labor relations and history. "If what happened to the private sector and manufacturing unions happens to the public sector, there won't be anything left."

The Political Stakes

Union workers consistently earn about $200 dollars more a week than non-union workers, according to BLS data, to say nothing of pensions and benefits that are vanishing among comparable non-union jobs. This is a personal fight to the families involved. But labor battles are also, as they always have been, a political fight.

Labor is not the political machine it once was. Union households have seen their share of the electorate halved between the 1976 and 2008 presidential election, from 34 to 17 percent. Only about one in 10 voters were members of a union in 2008, according to exit polls. But Democrats remain deeply dependent on what power unions still hold.

Democrats rely on unions to help turn out the minority vote. Labor remains Democrats' only institutional bridge into the white middle and working class, men in particular. But economic and political change has lessened unions' influence over their members since the 1960s.

By the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan's strategic team sought to fracture the FDR coalition. Union members were one of the prime targets. Reagan's confidential 1980 campaign plan aimed "specific" media messages for "blue collar and labor union members" utilizing "principal themes" that "project a realization that these voters are no longer solely motivated by economic concerns but by larger social issues as well."

It was the right target. The AFL-CIO polled 104 unions in October 1980. Among its membership: 72 percent opposed cuts in defense spending, 65 percent favored a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced federal budget, and 60 percent agreed with Reagan's opposition to the Panama Canal treaties. The AFL-CIO never published the poll.

Jimmy Carter won white union households in 1976. Reagan won the plurality of white union households in 1980 by comfortably winning white union men and narrowly losing white union women. Still, Reagan performed even better with white non-union households.

Today, unions are smaller factors in the blue-collar vote. Modern unions have far fewer working class white members than decades past. The shift in labor's membership from the private to the public sector also shifted it from majority blue collar to majority white collar. Between 1983 and 2010, the share of union members who worked in white-collar jobs, as defined by BLS, increased from 38 to 54 percent. The most likely member of a union is no longer a factory worker but a schoolteacher.

Private sector unions are also less working class. In the past two decades, the share of private sector union members who are blue collar fell from two thirds to half. About seven in 10 public sector union members are white collar today, a share as stable as the jobs themselves. Teachers alone constitute nearly a third of public sector union jobs.

Unions still shift votes. In 2004, George W. Bush easily won gun owners but John Kerry won gun owners who were also union members.

Labor remains most influential for its fundraising. But unions are not the fiscal counterweight to big business they once were. Democrats first earned more contributions from corporations than labor in the mid 1980s. Business political action committees alone contributed $159 million to Democrats during the 2010 cycle. Union PACs contributed $67 million to Democrats by comparison, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). That comparison also underestimates the weight of business through soft money and private donations. "On the whole, business has a substantial advantage in campaign finance over labor," said Doug Weber, a senior researcher at CRP.

Republicans' opposition to unions, while also philosophical, is inextricably tied to unions' fidelity to Democrats. Corporations hedge their political investments. Business PACs only slightly favored Republicans in 2010. Union PACs donate almost exclusively to Democrats.

Government and municipal unions are today the dominant fundraisers of organized labor. Their acronyms are now familiar political players--AFSCME or SEIU. This is another reason that, as both parties realize, the loss of collective bargaining for public unions would prove a great Democratic loss.

Americans' View of Unions

Labor has a harder time convincing Americans that the decline of unions is their loss. Labor is instead seen as a partisan issue. Gallup recently asked Americans whether unions for state workers are generally more helpful or more harmful to their states. Two-thirds of Democrats said helpful. Two-thirds of Republicans said harmful. Independents split.

Yet there is evidence, from polling firms like Gallup, that a strong majority of Americans support pubic unions power to collectively organize. Americans have mixed feelings about unions. But a majority of the public seems to believe in their place at the table, in both the public and private sectors. Wisconsin's Walker could overreach.

Unions do, however, have a larger public relations problem. There is no longer a union mandate. Gallup regularly asks Americans about their confidence in more than a dozen institutions. Labor unions rank near the bottom, though still above big business.

The public's view of unions, like their membership size, is at a low point since the Great Depression. Half of the public still approves of unions but that's because Democrats largely approve and independents remain divided.

It's a painful full circle for organized labor. The Great Depression created the climate that began the modern labor movement. The Great Recession has created the climate that could end what little remains big about labor. Tens of thousand of union members march in Wisconsin. But most Americans are not watching. More Americans were aware of the assault on CBS News correspondent Lara Logan than Wisconsin's labor fight, the Pew Research Center reported last week. Americans are not deeply engaged in this fight because far fewer Americans have a stake in that fight. Labor is fighting to turn the tide. But, in so many respects, the water is already over the dam.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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