The State of the Unions | Sojourners

The State of the Unions

Organized labor in the United States is in big trouble. That is not exactly hot news. Everyone knows that union membership has been declining for years, and it's no secret that the 1984 election results were disastrous for the AFL-CIO. But in recent months, two documents have been released that shed some new light on just how bad things have gotten for the unions and some of the reasons why.

In February the Bureau of Labor Statistics issued a report showing that the percentage of workers belonging to unions has declined from 23 percent in 1980 to 18.8 percent in 1984. The biggest losses were in the manufacturing sector of the economy, long the backbone of the union movement. There the percentage of union members has fallen from 30.5 percent in 1980 to 24 percent in 1984. In the fast-growing service sector, where unions were already weakest, membership declined from 13.5 to 10.5 percent. Only among public employees have the unions held their ground thus far in the Reagan era.

There are many reasons for the continuing decline in labor's power. The one most often noted is the changing nature of the economy. New technologies have made it easier for U.S. companies to spread their operations across the globe in search of cheap labor, and naturally the union jobs in this country have been the first to go. In a classic "Catch-22," the resulting decline in the unions' membership base leaves them with shrunken resources to devote to new organizing or to political action against capital flight.

The toll of deindustrialization alone would have been bad enough for the unions, but that process has increasingly been coupled with more aggressive union-busting tactics on the part of corporations. And the federal government, long the chief protector of trade union rights, has over the last decade slowly shifted its weight to the side of business.

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