Labor Unions Are In Inevitable Terminal Decline (Until They Aren't)

A blog about business and economics.
Dec. 13 2012 11:47 AM

Labor Unions Are In Inevitable Terminal Decline (Until They Aren't)

Great find from Seth Ackerman, a 1926 New York Times editorial:

“The Shift From the Unions”
June 27, 1926
Samuel Gompers used to declare that the American Federation of Labor “never would surrender the advantages gained through the war.” Yet in the six years 1920-25 it fell off in mere numbers from its peak of over 4,050,000 to 2,877,297. According to a writer inCurrent History, there has been an even greater decline in prestige. As Research Director of the Pennsylvania Old Age Commission, Abraham Epstein lately inspected “1500 of the larger concerns of the United States.” Almost everywhere, he found a shift away from the unions. “If the labor movement is doomed,” he asks, “what then?”
Mr. Epstein pays high tribute to the achievements of the Federation. Not only to its own members but to American labor in general it has brought shorter hours, higher wages, improved working conditions. But he quotes its very leaders as attesting that its “vitality and missionary zeal” are in decadence. In the Pennslvania Federation twenty-two out of twenty-six officials “unequivocally declared” to this effect. Some of them conscientiously took the blame upon themselves. Others found refuge in current patter — “the automobile, the radio, the movies, the good times, the bad times, President Coolidge, the ignorance of the workers, the Communists, the gross materialism of the labor movement, the capitalism of the labor movement, the capitalist press, the lack of a labor press. Our younger members, especially, have gone jazzy.” Mr. Epstein finds, rather, that “the hopes and aspirations of the rank and file” are in process of being transferred from outside union leaders to the managerial forces within the workers’ several shops.
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And I think that trend did in fact continue for quite a few years, until the Depression made people more militant and then New Deal policies encouraged union organizing and World War II policies encouraged even more union organizing. Then 1947's Taft-Hartley Act discouraged new organizing and unionization levels tended to decline. But then the Great Society opened the door to union organizing in the public sector so things plateaued for a bit before entering the decades-long period of decline that's happening today. And that trends seems set to continue. But human history is full of weird and unexpected events.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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