Workers Unite: "Workers celebrate the end of the Flint sit-down strike, February 11, 1937,"
the article notes.
The decline of the American labor movement is—for a number of reasons—a pretty good marker for the broader dismantling of the New Deal and, therefore, for the political roots of inequality in the United States. Union losses, as we shall see, account in no small part for rising inequality, especially for men and especially in the 1970s and ’80s. These losses, in turn, have shaped the political environment: midcentury unions, representing a third of the private workforce, fought and won battles over trade, workplace safety, social policy, and civil rights; with union membership at 6.7 percent in the private labor force (2013), those battles (let alone any victories) are growing rarer and rarer.
Union decline has also fed inequality because, in the American context, so much is at stake at the bargaining table. In settings where union coverage is even and expansive, and where workers (and employers) can count on a decent minimum wage and universal health and retirement benefits, the stakes of collective bargaining in the private sector are relatively low. In the United States, by contrast, economic security is shackled to private job-based benefits, and uneven patterns of union coverage have always made it harder to organize bottom-feeding regions and firms. Employer and political opposition, in this respect, is fierce not because the labor movement is strong, but because it has never been strong enough to to socialize job-based benefits or to take wages out of competition.
A Short History of American Labor Policy
The American labor movement began the twentieth century claiming coverage of about 10 percent of the labor force, almost all of it (under the mantle of the American Federation of Labor) confined to skilled crafts and trades. An acute labor shortage during World War I pushed that number up to nearly 20 percent by the war’s end, but then employers took the gloves off. The anti-union drives of the 1920s rolled back most of those gains, restoring a pattern of insecurity and low wages (cushioned slightly by employer paternalism).
The arrival of the Great Depression—and with it, unemployment rates pushing 25 percent—brought dramatic change. Workers, with little left to lose, launched a series of dramatic organizing drives—first, in response to economic woes, and then under the legal protection for collective bargaining promised by the National Recovery Act (1933-1935) and delivered by the National Labor Relations Act (1935).
Just as importantly, New Dealers and progressive business interests came to view the economic crisis, and its persistence, as a consequence of weak aggregate demand in an economy organized around low wages. The new labor relations compact, in this respect, was essentially a recovery strategy—a way of using union power (after the Supreme Court abandoned the New Deal’s brief flirtation with industrial policy) to put money in the pockets of workers (as consumers). This was the culmination of Henry Ford’s effort—floated to much fanfare in 1914 but abandoned soon after—of bridging the gap between mass production and mass consumption by “making 20,000 men prosperous and contented rather than following the plan of making a few slave-drivers in our establishment multi-millionaires.” The combination of democratic workplace institutions, a legal framework for collective bargaining, and dramatic organizing gains presented—in this sense—both a new challenge for employers and, at least for some of them, a way of solving the challenges they already faced.The New Left has all but abandoned the labour movement and in doing so has abandoned the ideas and ideals of liberalism and workers' social and economic rights, thus weakening its position and that of liberalism in American politics. While the Left has become all things for all peoples, and many (but not all) of its stances and ideas are good, it does not generally represent worker interests as it used to do.
If the Left would concentrate its diminishing energies on economic rights and the ideas of the social contract, it might eventually become a moral force with which to reckon. Its chief goal ought to be as a countervailing force against corporate excesses, Gordon writes: "More broadly, the decline of both public and private sector unions means the decline of one of the most potent political forces of the last century, and along with it, support for a wide range of public policies that might sustain working families and check corporate power."
You can read the rest of the article at [Dissent].