Tuesday’s failure to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is being widely interpreted as a political defeat for organized labor. After Walker and a Republican-controlled legislature stripped most public employee unions of bargaining rights, unions saw their very existence at stake and pulled out all the stops to punish Walker and overturn the law.
Wisconsin seemed like favorable ground for such a political fight. The state has a long tradition of progressive politics and union density is higher than in most other states. About 13.3 percent of all workers in Wisconsin belong to a union versus 11.8 percent nationwide.
However, the unions suffered from two problems that handicapped their efforts.
First, unions in general have endured a long decline in power, influence, and popularity. In the 1950s, more than a third of all workers belonged to a union. As recently as the 1970s, a quarter of all workers did. Strikes were common and those in a strategic industry such as railroads or steel could virtually shut down a significant portion of the entire U.S. economy.
George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO from 1955 to 1979, was widely considered to be one of the most powerful men in America. I had to check to see who the current president is. (It’s Richard Trumka, who has held the job since 2009.) The number of strikes has fallen from 200-400 per year in the 1970s to just 19 last year. It’s hard to remember the last one of any significance.
There are many reasons for the decline of labor unions, but the leading one is simply that those industries most amenable to unionization and where unionization was highest have been among those that have declined most sharply in recent years. Those on the upswing tend not to have many union members. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2003 and 2008, unions lost 138,653 members in auto manufacturing but gained just 4,736 in computer systems design.
Concomitant with the decline of union influence has been a sharp decline in union popularity. According to Gallup, union approval has fallen from 75 percent in the 1950s to 52 percent; disapproval has risen from 14 percent to 42 percent. An Economist/YouGovpoll out this week found only 38 percent support for unions and 32 percent disapproval.
A detailed study by Pew last year found that Americans tend to view unions as having a negative effect on productivity, job creation, and the ability of American firms to compete globally.
The second big problem for unions is the changing composition of unionization. At one time, unions were largely based in the private sector; today, a majority of all union members work in government.