The Past, Present, And Future Of Unions In The United States

The Past, Present, And Future Of Unions In The United States

Last week, we gave you the 411 on unions: What they are, how to unionize, and the importance of being an ally. In case you missed it, read the story here. Trust us, it’s a great primer for the read ahead!

Today’s unions aren’t all that different from unions of our grandparents’ day—except that there are fewer of them. While there’s no question that there has been more news coverage of strikes, protests, and unionizing in the last few years, the correlation between the number of push notifications that hit your phone and how many people are, in fact, inunions is tenuous at best.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018, roughly 10.5 percent of workers in the United States are union members. Compare that to 1983, when the union membership rate was 20.5 percent, and you’ll see signs of a mass exodus. Everything from the total number of unions, strikes, and the percentage of active union members is at a record low. But the thing is, we’ve been here before.

The History Of Unions: A Quick Recap

In 1613, the “first labor strike on American soil” took place. Polish craftsmen who built Jamestown, Virginia—yes, that Jamestown—were denied the right to vote in town elections. So they withheld their main bargaining chip: They refused to work.

Still, it’s not until the 1880s that formalized unions appeared in the private sector, particularly at factories. First came the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (1881) and then, five years later, the American Federation of Labor (AFL). In 1913, President Taft created The Department of Labor. From there, various trade professions (sometimes called “blue-collar” industries) started unionizing. Coal miners. Steelworkers. Sleeping railroad car porters.

Union membership was still on the rise at the turn of the century, and then something happened: It started to decline. Big time. According to Steven Greenhouse’s Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor, from 1920 to 1930, as personal wealth became concentrated at the top 1 percent, and corporate power expanded (hm, sound familiar?), union members in the labor force dropped from 12.2 percent to 7.5 percent.

Then, whiplash! The Great Depression arrived. American quality of life hit rock bottom—and unions experienced what McAlevey calls their “largest growth spurt” in history. The 1930s and 40s, in large part thanks to the New Deal, saw some of the highest rates of union membership (and the highest number of unions) in history.

Wealth dispersal shifted, too. In a recent New Yorker piece, The State of the Unions, Caleb Crain puts it like this: “Whenever the rate of unionization in America has risen in the past hundred years, the top one percent’s portion of the national income has tended to shrink.”

As you already know, the union boom didn’t last.

The Argument Against Unions–And Resulting Downfall

The Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1947, is the first major piece of anti-union legislation and it’s often credited with starting the era of union downfall. Around the 1950s, we see union membership start to stagnate, and (more importantly) Americans start to sour on union leaders who seem disinterested in new members or voices—and some who keep turning up in headlines about mobs, crime, and corruption. (BTW, around this time, Robert Kennedy starts the Rackets Committee to investigate the Teamsters, and then-president James Hoffa for criminal activity. His work in the investigation arguably launched his political career.)

But one of the worst offenders, according to Greenhouse, is George Meany, the head of the AFL-CIO who once said, “I used to worry about the membership, about the size of membership. But quite a few years ago I just stopped worrying about it, because to me it doesn’t make any difference.” Meany was also a supporter of The Vietnam War, a position that didn’t help his popularity with younger, leftist workers in the 1960s. As Crain puts it in The New Yorker, “Meany, a former plumber from the Bronx, preferred looking after his own to chasing visions of workplace democracy.”

That exclusionary attitude, along with the corruption scandals, contributed to the public questioning whether unions are doing more harm than good. (Do they drive up prices for consumers? Do they stop the most qualified person from getting the job? Do they force low-wage workers to pay dues they can’t afford in exchange for rewards they may not reap?) The economic instability and high unemployment rates of the 1970s and 1980s didn’t help the union cause. Neither did how much easier it became to move jobs overseas. And then there’s the Reagan Administration.

Reagan led a strike during his tenure at the Screen Actors Guild. As president, he breaks the air traffic controller strike by firing more than 11,000 people. This turns out to be the death knell. In the New Yorker, Crain quotes the president of a copper mine who says, “ Suddenly people realized, Hell, you can beat a union.”

After that, union membership trends downward until today, where we’re seeing some of the lowest rates in decades. A New York Times review of Greenhouse’s book points out that in the 1970s, “there were nearly 300 large strikes—comprising at least 1,000 workers—every year. After Reagan, that number plummeted to under 60. From 2008 to 2018, the average number was just 13.”

Unions Now

“We are living in a gilded age,” says Dr. Carmen Rojas, co-founder of The Workers Lab, a group that invests in projects to help improve the experiences of low-wage workers. “Few people have as much wealth as all Americans, and on the other side, you have 60 percent of Americans who can’t afford a $1,000 unexpected expense.”

Corporate power is at an all-time high and there’s an extreme concentration of wealth. In 2019, the “one percent” holds more of America’s wealth than it has in almost 100 years. And the gig economy means more and more people are working long, irregular hours with no benefits. Rojas’ nod to The Gilded Age isn’t a coincidence. Many labor experts think that the current downturn in union membership parallels the one we saw in the 1920s. That decade that followed saw the largest unionization boom in history. Pro-union organizers will tell you that not much has changed when it comes to rights, either, and that collectivizing is still the best way to get heard.

“It’s the most scalable way to build powerful, working people,” says Rojas. “The union contract works regardless of industry, regardless of whether you are a teacher in Tennessee or the restaurant worker in New York. You can start to organize anywhere, and the model is the same. That for me is the exciting thing. It’s not complex, but it really shifts power.”

“We haven’t found in several hundred years an alternative that doesn’t rely on workers standing up for themselves and collectivizing,” says McAlevey, “We just don’t have power as individuals.”

Millennials And Unions, Or The Rise Of The Reluctant Organizer

Clarissa Redwine answers my call at 7:48 a.m. on a Saturday. We’ve had to play phone tag all week because of Redwine’s bustling schedule. She’s unemployed.

Redwine was fired last month from her job at Kickstarter. Kickstarter management cited performance issues, but she is also an active member of Kickstarter United, the unrecognized staff union that emerged after a dispute between staffers and leadership in 2018. Unsurprisingly, her firing, which up to five current and former staffers told Slate “didn’t follow…normal procedure”, raised a few eyebrows.

When I call Redwine, I expect someone like McAlevey—union-savvy with decades of experience on strike lines. Instead, she jokes that the only thing she knew about unions before Kickstarter was that we could all thank them for weekends. But, she’s much more knowledgable than most. Redwine, who is 29, tells me that she always saw labor unions as a “force for doing good,” but beyond that, hadn’t put much thought into unions until the events unfolded at Kickstarter. She attributes some of that to her generation.

“I think it has something to do with growing up in an atmosphere that valued individualism and meritocracy,” she says. “It created this individualistic outlook that made people a little less inclined to put structures in place that tied them to the people around them. I do think that affected me.” But then, when you’re facing problems at your company alone, she says that you ask yourself, “How is this actually going to work?”

In the end, Redwine tells me that joining a union meant she had to start thinking about the risks involved differently.

“Even though I am a woman and face my own struggles in the workplace, I knew I was in a position of privilege,” she says, “I work in tech. [My job was in] a category that made a lot of money, and historically it was secure from restructuring and layoffs at Kickstarter. I finally came to the conclusion that I was in a very safe and secure spot compared to many other workers.”

Redwine’s experience echoes a sentiment MacAlevey and Rojas touch on as well: that we’re witnessing a fundamental shift away from the personal to the collective.

During our interviews, I mention that 2019 unionizing seem to fall into two camps: 1. Low-wage workers and trade unions, such as Fight for $15 and the recent teacher walkouts and 2. More creative professional industries that have previously had little experience (if any) with unionizing. (Think: Media, academia, and tech.) They listen politely, then tell me that they don’t see these movements as mutually exclusive.

For McAlevey, the main distinction is that, in addition to labor issues like gender discrimination, pay discrepancies or other workers’ issues, creative organizers sense that they’re losing control over their work.

“People are losing control to the bean-counting, cost-cutting, hedge fund Wall Street domination of what used to be a sphere of intellectually stimulating work.” Still, power and having a voice underwrites every protest.

Rojas points me toward the environmental strikes at Amazon or the walkouts at Google over sexual harassment. She sees these as examples of how people are addressing broader issues through the lens of unionizing. You can see evidence of this, too, in the recent news around rideshare drivers’ rights. In March, United Auto Workers threw its support behind a bill in Connecticut to increase rideshare wages and protect drivers against retaliation.

“Professional workers are tying their fates to low-wage workers and contract workers,” Roja says. “We have to find a more holistic picture of how people move through the world, so it’s not just you as the worker, but you as a person. It’s not a zero-sum game.”

The “collective” means more now than it ever has.

What’s Next for Unions?

The general consensus, whether you’re pro-union or union-skeptical, is that it’s about to get interesting. Rojas thinks that’s especially true in the tech industry and freelance economy.

“I think we have confused the benefits of being entrepreneurial with making concessions that are unheard of in a traditional environment,” she says. “There’s this weird badge of honor around what is essentially asking workers to assume risk. I think we need to start to question the assumptions of what is built into startup culture and in freelance culture. What are you being asked to give up in exchange for flexibility?”

McAlevey is worried about what we’re giving up as well.

“How much do you know about the Epic Systems decision?” she asks.

“Last May, the Supreme Court ruled in Epic Systems (a consolidation of three other cases), and it said that mandatory, binding arbitration agreements are now legal in the United States. So most workers in this country, when they sign their new hire paperwork, can be—and have been—forced into non-arbitration agreements. Most workers don’t even know it. So—and this is especially scary for the #MeToo movement—workers literally can’t get together if an employer harasses them and find a lawyer and file a lawsuit.” McAlevey sees this as both a catastrophe and a catalyst for union momentum.

She adds: “When people wake up and realize that they’ve signed away their rights, I think we’re going to see more unions keep coming.”