Working In These Times
What Is Killing the Labor Movement?
A new study offers a surprisingly specific answer
What—or who—is killing off the American labor movement? Is it globalization? New technologies? A shift toward services?
None of the above, say John Schmitt and Alexandra Mitukiewicz of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a progressive Washington think tank. It's politics, they argue, in a study released this week titled "Politics Matter: Changes in Unionization Rates in Rich Countries."
Schmitt and Mitukiewicz compared the experiences from 1960 to the present of 21 rich countries, all of whom had a similar level of global integration and technological development. Despite those resemblances, there were several very different starting points and trajectories for labor movements over the decades with regard to membership and contract coverage. (The two are often quite distinct, since union contracts are extended to nonunion workers in many countries.) And the different patterns closely correlate with the dominant political tradition of the countries.
In the traditionally social democratic countries, like Denmark and Sweden, unions started with very high coverage that grew slightly—often to more than 90 percent—while membership declined a small amount. Countries with a Christian democratic or continental market economy, like Italy, Germany and The Netherlands, have typically seen only modest declines in coverage and membership.
By contrast, labor movements in the largely English-speaking "liberal market economies," like the United States, Australia and New Zealand, have suffered sharp declines, some more dramatic as a percentage of workers than in the United States. (Just 6.9 pecent of private-sector American workers are union members, according to the Labor Department.)
"The patterns are consistent with the view that national politics are a more important determinant of recent trends in unionization than globalization or technological change," the authors conclude.
The decline of unions makes it even more difficult to change the political culture to be less hostile to union organizing. And growing union weakness also contributes to rising economic inequality. In a study published last August, sociologists Bruce Western of Harvard and Jake Rosenfeld of the University of Washington concluded that union membership decline contributed to as much as a third of the increase in wage inequality in the past several decades.
The implications for labor are that it needs political influence and change in both laws and culture as well as more organizing efforts to grow again. But unfortunately, many Democrats sill do not see the future of their party as depending on that new political culture and a union revival.