By Christian Stellakis
On September 1st, the United States celebrated Labor Day, a holiday meant to appreciate the American labor movement and acknowledge both the economic and social accomplishments of workers throughout the nation. It is also a day of reflection and contemplation; its purpose is to allow Americans to consider the successes and failures of organized labor, as well as to ponder its future. While for many this holiday provides a break from the grind of the work week, for unions it likely provides little solace in the face of their growing irrelevance in American society.
Labor unions were once powerhouses in American society. They pressed for greater protective legislation, they fought for higher wages for the common man, and they united the people against the greedy schemes of corporations. Unions stood for justice and fairness; for many years they were strong, important and, above all, necessary. So what has changed?
It is certainly no secret that the power and influence of American labor unions is on the decline, especially in the private sector. Following World War II, private sector union membership totaled a whopping 36 percent of the entire workforce. Today, membership stands at a measly 6.7 percent, and has been steadily falling since the mid 1980s. America’s perception of unions also teeters on the brink of disaster, as only a slim majority – fifty-one percent of the public – hold a favorable view of labor unions. Unions are hemorrhaging both political and economic leverage from falling membership and, ostensibly, a shrinking amount of union-due cash flow. But the decline in social, economic and political capital are merely symptoms of union’s growing irrelevance, not the cause.
In a sense, the reason for the downfall of unionized labor is rather subjective; the answer will vary greatly depending on the ideological leanings of the respondent. If you ask the pro-union advocates, they will tell you that big business is responsible for the unions’decline in power. They argue that large companies spend a great deal of money on lobbying aimed at reducing the influence of organized labor.
While this line of reasoning may be accurate, it does not bolster the unions’position. By blaming business, lobbyists and special interest groups, the pro-union supporters effectively acknowledge that unions themselves are failing to produce results. The interests of big business and those of labor unions necessarily clash, and businesses, like labor unions, are completely within their rights to fight for their own interests and objectives. To condemn big business for actions that unions themselves take is the essence of hypocrisy.
Conversely, individuals that are anti-union often state that the reason for labor unions’decline is more structural than political. The decreased number of manufacturing jobs in the United States, coupled with the increased pressure of globalization, has caused a paradigm shift in the American economy. Simply, the United States can no longer sustain the burden that labor unions place on the economic system. Instead, they argue, the US must necessarily embrace a much more competitive, market based approach. The decreasing power of the unions is just the result of the changing economic landscape.
A more balanced, nonpartisan approach recognizes that both arguments have a certain degree of merit. Politics have played a vital role in the decline of union power. Currently, twenty-four states have passed “Right-to-work”laws, legislative acts that effectively strip organized labor of their power to establish union security agreements. A major victory for the anti-union crowd, the Supreme Court ruled that forcing individuals to pay union dues violates their First Amendment rights.
This sweeping decision was a crushing blow to the unions’ability raise revenue, while also robbing organized labor of one of its major draws: the exclusivity of benefits. Due to the Right-to-work legislation, non-union workers no longer have to pay union dues, yet they still receive the union benefits of higher wages and better hours. This removes nearly all incentive for workers to join a union in the first place. Why pay for union benefits when you could just receive them for free?
Ultimately though, labor unions are attempting to swim against the tide of modern capitalism. Once called upon to defend the common factory worker against fifteen hour shifts, horrible working conditions and pitiful wages, labor unions courageously rose to the challenge. But those struggles that facilitated the rise of organized labor are no longer a major factor in American industry today. Simply stated, the American workforce doesn’t need unions as it did following World War II. As business, politicians, and even workers come to that realization, labor unions continue to grow more and more irrelevant.
Christian is a Junior at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. As an honors student and member of the Dean’s List, Christian is pursuing a degree in Economics and Government. He was accepted into Hamilton after graduating Valedictorian of Chittenango High School, where he served as the Opinion Editor for the school newspaper. Christian is an avid member of the Hamilton College Debate Society and a frequent contributor to the political discourse at the college.