By Stephen Mihm / Bloomberg Opinion
Things seem to be looking up for unions. WGA and SAG-AFTRA have brought Hollywood to a screeching halt, and a tentative deal has been reached between the writers and studios. United Parcel Service’s workers secured a substantial wage increase. The United Auto Workers are now on strike against the nation’s largest automakers; the first time the union has hit every one of the “Big Three” at once. And polling data released last month indicated that two-thirds of Americans approve of unions, a level last seen in 1965.
But before workers crack open the champagne, they should understand that unions face a sad state of affairs that neither public opinion nor high-profile strikes can fix. A series of decades-old regulations have tipped the balance of power against organized labor.
The fortunes of labor unions have fluctuated greatly over the past century. In the 1920s, when membership fell to just over 10 percent — precisely where it stands now — newspapers wrote of the “Collapse of Organized Labor,” and business leaders predicted that “organized labor is rapidly falling out of the picture in America.” The onset of the Great Depression and the rise of the New Deal reversed these trends. Thanks to the passage of the 1935 Wagner Act, the new National Labor Relations Board guaranteed the rights of workers to unionize.
And they did. By the end of World War II, membership had tripled, reaching all-time highs. Likewise, public approval of unions — which Gallup began measuring in the 1930s — hovered roughly between 60 percent and 70 percent.
But here’s the rub: since then, approval has remained remarkably constant, only suffering occasional dips.
What has changed, though, is union membership, which has sustained catastrophic declines in the same period. This is what social scientists dubbed the “paradox of American unionism”: Americans consistently support unions, but that has done nothing to halt their demise.
To understand why, it’s helpful to know what happened to the original New Deal coalition. By the late 1930s, a growing number of conservative Southern Democrats began to push back against the liberal wing of the party on a number of issues, including unions. Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to tame these apostates but failed. If anything, their power grew, particularly after they allied with Northern Republicans.
In 1947, the two groups capitalized on anxiety over the communist infiltration of unions to pass a sweeping piece of legislation that targeted organized workers on multiple fronts. Known as the Taft-Hartley Act, it was touted as a way to protect workers from what were deemed to be unfair union practices; such as mandatory enrollment and dues. But instead, it took a wrecking ball to many of the most cherished tools that helped workers fight for better benefits, safety and higher wages.
It permitted states to pass right-to-work laws, effectively outlawing unions in states inclined to do so. Certain types of strikes that had proven effective in the past, such as solidarity strikes and wildcat strikes, were also given the boot. It even forced unions to give notice when they planned to walk out, eliminating the element of surprise.
Other provisions either undercut membership or purged workers from union roles. For example, Communists were banned, depriving labor of some of its most militant and skilled organizers. At the same time, it excluded foremen and low-level supervisors, driving a wedge between colleagues.
As the labor movement went on a downward path following these changes, the courts stepped in to hand down further restrictions in the 1970s, such as allowing employers to force organizers to hold a secret ballot vote on joining a union, undercutting the kind of “peer pressure” that helps drive membership.
Though enrollment continued to increase in absolute terms after 1947, this did not keep pace with the growth in the overall workforce. The percentage of workers in unions began its decades-long dive soon after the passage of Taft-Hartley.
In retrospect, the law appears to have been a mortal wound to the labor movement. Activists and historians have pointed out that it put a “legal straitjacket” on the movement and “curb[ed] interunion solidarity.”
Indeed, it translated into fewer strikes. In 1947, when Congress passed Taft-Hartley, the U.S. had witnessed some 270 strikes. By the time Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, unions were on the defensive, launching only 145. One of those was the famous walkout of the nation’s air traffic controllers. In response, Reagan invoked one of the provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act to declare the strike illegal and ordered the strikers back to work. When they refused, Reagan fired over 11,000 controllers. In the wake of the firings, organized labor retreated further. A decade later, there were only 40 strikes. And last year, 23.
These tangible changes should serve as a corrective to anyone who points to the latest public opinion polls, Hollywood, UPS or the UAW as compelling evidence of a rebound for organized labor.
This is not to suggest that labor can’t recover from its historic decline. In fact, lost in the recent breathless coverage of the summer of strikes was a momentous NLRB decision handed down three weeks ago. It effectively overturns decades of precedent, enabling unions to circumvent the much-despised secret ballot requirement. It marks a momentous shift.
That kind of development, far more than news of another strike or opinion poll, will ultimately decide the fate of workers in the U.S.
Stephen Mihm, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, is co-author of “Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance.”