At the beginning of the 21st century, labor unions in America may be weaker, politically and socially, than at any time since World War II. It's certainly the case that union membership has declined sharply since it's peak in the 1950s.
It's no coincidence that the same period has also brought:
- A steady decline in tax rates for the richest Americans, from it's high at 92% in the 1950s to where it is today at just 35%.
- A steady increase in the share of total national income going to the richest 1% of Americans.
- A stagnation in workers' real wages, despite rising worker productivity.
- A sharply growing imbalance in the ratio of CEO pay to worker pay.
The decline of union power has meant the rise of corporation owner and management power. The privileged few who sit atop our economic structure are now better off compared to the rest of society than at any time in at least the last 80 years, maybe longer. By some measures, you would have to go back to the 1920s to find comparable economic inequality; by other measures, you'd have to go back to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. Unions built the middle class, and the decline of unions means the decline of the middle class.
Two sweeping changes have tipped the scales against working people, in other words against the great majority of society. First, there's the change in the kinds of jobs available in America. The shift from a manufacturing economy to a service economy has deservedly received a lot of attention. That shift has often meant trading high-wage union jobs with benefits for low-wage non-union service sector jobs. The labor movement, for its part, is doing its best to mirror this change and organize the industries of the new economy. But the evolution from a manufacturing economy to a service economy is not just about trading one industry for another.
Consider the kind of job your father or your grandfather had. There are pretty good chances he worked a single job for many years, perhaps his whole career. He may have worked with the same group of people the whole time. I'm thinking of my father-in-law, who started working for a telephone company when he was 18, climbing telephone poles. He stuck with it, became a job steward with the union, and today he's close to retirement with a job that he loves and that has provided a comfortable middle class life for his family.
Now compare that to the job situation of young people you know today. Odds are they change jobs pretty frequently--maybe every year or two. Sure, there may be some benefits to hopping around. We like to think we can choose jobs like we choose consumer goods. But what does that do to a worker's willingness and ability to work for changes in any particular workplace or industry? There's not going to be much organizing or activism in a workplace when no one is there long enough to really get to know their co-workers.
And maybe that's the point. We're becoming a nation of itinerant workers. Worker power has been dispersed. Management power has been concentrated.
The second big factor tilting the scales in favor of corporate power is the phase of "globalization" in which we currently live. The big capitalists have gone global, but labor is mostly still local. This obviously gives capital tremendous leverage against labor, like a boxer who bobs and weaves and circles the ring fighting one who stands still. A corporation that experiences "labor difficulties" can simply pack up and move to the other side of the planet. So-called "free trade agreements" mean that borders and certain laws do not apply to corporations, but you can bet they still apply to workers.
But here's the chink in the armor of corporate power. Corporations need workers to serve them. The capitalists may have virtually all the wealth, but labor creates all wealth. It is, by definition, a parasitic relationship. If the host cuts off the parasite, then the parasite dies. For now, big business may trot the globe looking for the place where workers are easiest to exploit. They may create an American foreign policy that casts workers' movements in other countries as dire threats to American security, justifying the use of American military power to keep their foreign labor cheap. Industrialist Richard B. Mellon once said, "You can't mine coal without machine guns." Today he might say, "You cannot run multinational corporations without the occasional Western-backed military coup."
But eventually, God willing, corporations will find popular resistance everywhere they go. Eventually the same technologies that enable corporate management to span the globe will also enable workers to unite around the globe in shared struggles. We see glimpses of this now. But if a global democratic movement is going to challenge global tyranny (undemocratic governments and corporations), then international labor solidarity will have to become a more potent force.
Which brings us back to the good ol' USA. American unions will not be able to effectively reach out around the world until they build their own strength right here. We're going to have to organize strong, fighting unions of fast-food workers, big-box store employees, office workers. There was a time in American history when union organizing could break out almost anywhere, even the military. We need to stoke that fire again. We'll have to think globally and act locally in order to act globally and benefit locally. It's a tall order but one that's worthy of the history of the American progressive movement.