« In Today's Inbox (November 2, 2005) | Main | More New Textbooks »

November 09, 2005

The Decline of the American Union Movement

Tim Burke argues that strikes like that of Philadelphia's mass-transit workers are much more costly for the union movement as a whole than strikers realize:

The Union Label: [T]he proposition that Wal-Mart employees need collective representation that aggressively stands up for their interests strikes me as unquestionable. The only solution for predatory employment practices in cases where workers have few if any alternative sources of employment and woefully unfair terms of labor is unionization. You have to have a legally protected right to unionize or to bargain collectively in a free society, and some strikes or labor actions deserve the general endorsement of a public, even when those strikes inconvenience us....

Some strikes I simply can’t work up any support for. It’s hard for me, like almost everyone else in the Philadelphia area, to feel any real support or warmth for the striking mass transit workers who have crippled transportation this week. It doesn’t affect me personally [but]... this is a very public event... poorer Philadelphians who are dependent on bus transport and schoolchildren in the city who use vouchers to travel on public transportation to get to school.... A strike against a private business is one thing: in a way, you can usually just avoid engaging it altogether, work with some other business for the time being. This is different.

The union involved doesn’t seem to recognize the difference, and in failing to do so, neatly explains the eclipse of the modern labor movement in America. They’ve made no meaningful effort to speak to the public in advance of the strike, to prepare the ground, no attempt to explain or frame their actions in that arena. They’ve acted in a way that has huge public consequences with almost no sense of engagement.... Labor’s decline began in the United States... precisely because of a consistent inability to articulate its actions through an alliance with some larger general interest. That accelerated in the late 1970s and early 1980s; now many unions don’t even bother to try to pretend that the public consequences of their labor actions are worth more than a cursory address....

As long as unions seem as obsessed with bureaucratic over-regulation of workplace obligations as any middle-manager straight out of “The Office”, as eager to return all their members to some mediocre mean of on-the-job effort, or as uninterested in the long-term viability of the institutions for which they labor as stock-price obsessed CEOs, they’re going to turn off many potential members. Yes, these are all caricatures, exaggerated by the news media, but I suspect many people in their working lives have encountered a few vividly personal examples as well as telling public anecdotes...

Posted by DeLong at November 9, 2005 02:12 PM