U.S. Labor Unions Have Been Declining Forever

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
March 20 2013 2:49 PM

America's Private Sector Labor Unions Have Always Been in Decline

union-density

Looks like it's time for another round of Internet Thumbsuckers About Labor Unions. Specifically, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson think economists should pay more attention to the political economy impacts of labor unions and not just to their localized impact on wages and growth. Kevin Drum agrees citing his past Mother Jones article offering a somewhat rosy gloss on the political economy of U.S. unions (here's a less rosy gloss from Mother Jones on prison guard unions).

I think this chart Doug Henwood posted in January tells you what you really need to know about this, namely that private sector labor unions have been in decline in the United States pretty consistently since World War II. There was a little uptick associated with the Great Depression, but really mass private sector labor unionism in the United States was an element of wartime economic planning. Then, in the immediate postwar years, we were at something of a political economy tipping point. We could have become a country where the overwhelming majority of large private sector firms were unionized, but instead congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act. It's been a long steady decline since then, partially masked by the unionization of a large swathe of public sector workers in the 1960s.

And there's obviously not going to be a major legislative turnaround now. In part that's because the 60-vote hurdle in the Senate is inherently hard to clear, but in part it's because those political economy considerations cut both ways. Hedge fund managers don't particularly need to fear their own workforce becoming unionized in a way that hurts the bottom line narrowly, but they do need to fear a tipping of the overall political landscape in a way that's unfavorable to them. On the face of things, groups dedicated to making abortion illegal should have no beef with the AFL-CIO but in practice AFL-CIO political activity is overwhelmingly favorable to politicians who want to keep it legal.

Advertisement

But back to the chart. The important point it makes, I think, is that it's essentially always been like this. There's been no sustained period of time when the political or economic landscape was favorable to a growing union share in the workforce. There was a large, one-off increase in union membership associated with the coincidence of a major gloabl war and a Democratic Party administration. My understanding is that there was a similar unionization surge during World War I. So anyone looking for a peacetime surge in union membership (I don't see anyone advocating a giant war) to transform the political dynamic is hoping for something essentially unprecedented. Just because it's unprecedented doesn't mean it might not happen, of course. But by the same token if "something unprecedented" happens why expect that unprecedented thing to involve NLRB-recognized collective bargaining units as opposed to some other form of membership organization?

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

TODAY IN SLATE

Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

The Jarring Experience of Watching White Americans Speak Frankly About Race

How Facebook’s New Feature Could Come in Handy During a Disaster

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

View From Chicago

You Should Be Able to Sell Your Kidney

Or at least trade it for something.

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Terrorism, Immigration, and Ebola Are Combining Into a Supercluster of Anxiety

The Legal Loophole That Allows Microsoft to Seize Assets and Shut Down Companies

  News & Politics
Propublica
Oct. 17 2014 4:21 PM Why the Poor Pay $1,400 for Old iPads #MuckReads: A weekly roundup of investigative reporting from ProPublica.
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 19 2014 11:40 AM Pot-Infused Halloween Candy Is a Worry in Colorado
  Life
Outward
Oct. 17 2014 5:26 PM Judge Begrudgingly Strikes Down Wyoming’s Gay Marriage Ban
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 17 2014 1:54 PM Republican Midterm Debate Strategy: Be Pro-Life, But Not Anti-Abortion
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 8:32 AM Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy—and a Mess. Can the Movies Fix It?
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 17 2014 6:05 PM There Is No Better Use For Drones Than Star Wars Reenactments
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 20 2014 7:00 AM Gallery: The Red Planet and the Comet
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 16 2014 2:03 PM Oh What a Relief It Is How the rise of the bullpen has changed baseball.