Sad, Startling Stats: Number of Union Elections, Strikes Continue Steady Decline

Mike Elk

A banner reading 'My life is pointless' is held by a protester last month in Paris, during a nationwide strike called by French unions to protest pension overhauls and changes to the retirement age. General strikes remain common in western Europe, but are illegal in the United States.

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New figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) demonstrate the American labor movement’s decreasing ability to organize new workers and use its most potent weapon — the strike.

The federal agency’s startling new stats, released last week, show that the total number of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union elections has dropped by 60% from 1997 – 2009: There were 3,261 elections in 1997, but only 1,304 elections in 2009. Likewise, elections won in favor of union representation during that time declined 48%, from 1,656 elections in 1997 to 864 last year.

While labor had a slightly higher success rate in winning elections, this is because labor focused on trying to organize fewer shops and organizing smaller, more easily organized shops. We know this because the number of workers merely eligible to vote for union representation declined from 224,262 in 1997 to 69,832 in 2009.

The shift away from trying to organize the large multinational companies that define wage standards to smaller less economically significant shops has occurred because unions are desperate to gain dues to keep themselves alive. They’ve lost 1.1 million private sector members from 1995 to 2008.

Labor’s ongoing hardship affects its inability to call strikes. In 1952, at the peak of labor’s power, there were 470 major strikes” (defined by the BLS as involving 1,000 workers or more). In 2009, there were only five major strikes, the smallest amount of since the BLS began recording strike data in 1947

2009 was an unusually low year because of the financial crisis, but strikes have been decreasing dramatically for the last 30 years. Throughout the 1980s, there was an average of 83 major strikes a year, during the 1990s there was an average of 35 per year, and from 2000 – 2009, there was an average of 20 major strikes a year.

Labor’s decline in power is caused primarily by three factors — unionbusting, outsourcing, and union leader incompetency. As labor power weakens, employers have doubled their use of illegal unionbusting tactics since the 1990s, according to a study by Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Currently, 34 percent of employers fire union activists to intimidate other workers from joining a union. Studies show that without such threats, 58 percent of the workforce would be willing to join a union. But intimidation tactics make that virtually impossible.

The threat of outsourcing makes it increasingly difficult for unions to organize workers as well. Since 2000, 2 million jobs in the more heavily unionized manufacturing jobs have been lost to China. Outsourcing causes unions to not only lose members, but makes it tougher for unions to organize new members. In 57% of all union drives, employers threaten to move factories if workers unionize — a threatthat is very real.

Labor leaders also have played a very big role in labor’s decline. While the labor movement has lost 1.1 million members, the salary of top labor officials’ salaries has nearly tripled, according to a recent study by Labor Notes. If unions capped their total annual compensation at $150,000, they would save the labor movement $143 million dollars annually. At a time when unions are laying off young organizers as they lose members, there’s no reason why officials should take such exorbitant salaries.

We currently don’t have the resources or the political power to win the political fights on the things threatening our survival: a bad economy, outsourcing, and unionbusting. We must organize more workers. In order to do that the labor movement needs to cap union official’s salaries so that we can hire more young organizers and not lay them off like we are doing now.

It’s true that labor’s internal problems aren’t as grave as the threats we face from unionbusting and outsourcing. Corporations have done more to hurt labor than labor has done to hurt itself.

But while the labor movement can’t control (to a signifcant degree) the political environment that affects what corporations can do to unions, it can control how it uses its resources. If unions are serious about rebuilding their movement, they must start by cleaning their own shops first.

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Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.
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