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Are Labor Unions Going Down For the Count?

Radio stations are fond of spinning Elvis tunes and the other rock-and-roll hits of the Fifties. In an increasingly fragmented era, it may be worthwhile to go retro and bring back the social contract that ensured American workers a fair share of that era’s prosperity. Historians have often observed that the loss of intermediate groups like churches and unions often leads to greater centralization of power. As labor organizations disappear, citizens will turn to regulations and government as the only means to secure their rights and acceptable working conditions. It would therefore be wise for both parties to encourage unions’ survival.

The year 2011 certainly started off with a bang, as state governments facing huge budget shortfalls zeroed in on public service workers. Under pressure from Republican governors, public unions have given back part of what many consider overly generous compensation by accepting reductions in wages and benefits. But the issue that has touched off the largest firestorm is the ongoing attempt by a group of states to eliminate collective bargaining and the ability to have union dues automatically deducted from paychecks.

This pressure on unions continues in the face of opinion polls in Wisconsin and elsewhere that consistently show over 60% of the public favoring union bargaining rights. Union members and their supporters accuse the GOP of bias toward all unions and claim its real objective is union-busting—to remove labor organizations entirely from the public sector.

Six years ago, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels set the model when he decertified all public unions in the state and eliminated collective bargaining. Considered a rising star and possible 2012 GOP nominee for the White House, Daniels is credited with successfully balancing Indiana’s budget. Meanwhile, after losing their dues check-off, public union membership in Indiana is now just over 14,000, as 90% have fled the now-toothless organizations. Public employees complain it is unjust to use one election cycle to strip union workers of hard-earned bargaining rights and that budgets are being balanced almost entirely at their expense. On the other hand, most conservatives are convinced that the effort is paving our way back to prosperity.

Union membership in the U.S. has reached historic lows — from 33% in the Sixties to a dismal 7% of private-sector workers today. This certainly appears to be a watershed moment for organized labor. It may not be premature to speak of the final chapter of labor unions in the America. Conservative columnist Michael Barone seems to believe the loss of major industries means that the era of labor unions in America is over. Tom Bethel of the American Spectator says that unions “should have been declared illegal years ago” and argues that they can be eradicated through existing antitrust statutes.

Since the early 1980s unions have faced the toughest environment since the days when most strikes were illegal; broken up by Pinkerton guards or police. Manufacturing jobs, where unions have had their strongest base, have collapsed from a third of our workforce to 11–12% today. In just the eight years under President Bush, six million manufacturing jobs vanished. National and local unions have been forced to make millions in wage and benefit concessions as industries were downsized or moved overseas. Corporate managers do whatever they can to thwart and marginalize unions who they believe threaten their competitiveness and profitability. Union organizers face a labyrinth of obstructive tactics, including firing of activists, threats by companies to move jobs overseas, or employers who refuse to negotiate a contract even after a union is approved by a valid election.

But the great recession of 2007-09 forced many Americans to wake up to new realities we had hoped to avoid. The previous decades of “prosperity” did little to benefit the majority of people; it did, however, create a new super-rich aristocratic class. Several studies show that income inequality has skyrocketed to the highest level in the nation’s history. A large portion of the lower middle and working class are trapped in McJobs which pay wages at or barely above the poverty level. Of the new “recovery” jobs—those created since 2009—a mere 14% pay enough to support a two-child family, according to a recent study. What was called prosperity has been a boon for the top earners. Amazingly, from 2002-07, 75% of all income gains went to the top 1% wealthiest families. Fully 50% of all compensation now is earned by the top one-tenth of all Americans. By contrast, workers’ real wages have now decreased some 13% in real terms since Jimmy Carter was president.

On the other hand, working people in Europe’s democracies face nothing comparable. Economic times are just as tough but unions are still an integral part of society and the political process. In a sense they benefit from a long tradition exemplified in a social contract—a bond of respect among labor, government, business and farmers. By contrast, American culture has been much more invested in the rugged individual, the person who succeeds by his or her own efforts. We celebrate the self-made men of the American frontier and business heroes like Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Bill Gates. Thus many people are skeptical about using an labor organization to improve your livelihood or to secure your rights; something that should be necessary only for weaklings, or what one famous former governor calls “girlie men.”

Critics on the right tend to decry unions as a hindrance on the free market for labor and a brake on prosperity. But the continuing impoverishment of the once-great American middle class will lead to increasing demands on the federal government for economic security that jobs can no longer provide. It also furthers the disintegration of communities and leads to undue stress on families. To be sure, great opportunity exists in the current information-driven economy for millions, especially the best educated or particularly gifted and inventive people. But for those who live in cities and towns littered with closed industries and foreclosed and abandoned homes, the American Dream has become the American fantasy—one that lives more in old Hollywood movies than in their own communities.

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