Kathryn O’Donnell Howard Besser

The Decline of the American Labor Movement

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The Decline of the American Labor Movement

The U.S. Department of State, in its Outline of the U.S. Economy by Christopher Conte and Albert R. Karr, states that the following reasons led to the decline of labor unions in the 1980s and 1990s:

  • “Court decisions and NLRB rulings allowing workers to withhold the portion of their union dues used to back, or oppose, political candidates” were passed (Conte, and Karr 9).

  • Management became more “aggressive” because companies began “feeling the heat of foreign and domestic competition” (Conte, and Karr 9).

  • Automation in factories (Conte, and Karr 9).

  • More workers were employed in the service industry, “where unions traditionally have been weaker” (Conte, and Karr 9).

  • “Industry has migrated to the southern and western parts of the United States, regions that have a weaker union tradition” (Conte, and Karr 9).

  • “Negative publicity about corruption in the big Teamsters Union and other unions” (Conte, and Karr 9).

  • The “strength of the economy […] in the late 1990s” (Conte, and Karr 9).

The fact that, “many U.S.-based multinational firms began moving production facilities overseas during this period” (Conte, and Karr 10) is addressed in the article as well. But in the end the article states that, “The decline in jobs in traditional manufacturing industries, for instance, has been offset by rapidly rising employment in high-technology industries such as computers and biotechnology and in rapidly expanding service industries such as health care and computer software” (Conte, and Karr 11).

Robert E. Scott, Senior International Economist and Director of International Programs at the Economic Policy Institute, disagrees. In one article he states, “Since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1993, the rise in the U.S. trade deficit with Canada and Mexico through 2002 has caused the displacement of production that supported 879,280 U.S. jobs. Most of those lost jobs were high-wage positions in manufacturing industries. […] NAFTA has also contributed to rising income inequality, suppressed real wages for production workers, weakened workers' collective bargaining powers and ability to organize unions, and reduced fringe benefits. […] Furthermore, no protections were contained in the core of the agreement to maintain labor or environmental standards. As a result, NAFTA tilted the economic playing field in favor of investors, and against workers and the environment, resulting in a hemispheric "race to the bottom" in wages and environmental quality […] Most displaced workers [in the U.S.] find jobs in other sectors where wages are much lower, which in turn leads to lower average wages for all U.S. workers” (Scott). Whereas the U.S. Department of State suggests that the loss of manufacturing jobs will be solved by the increase of jobs in the service sector, Scott argues that this does not solve the problem because the service sector jobs do not pay as much as the manufacturing ones.

On April 21, 2006, the AFL-CIO hosted a “forum sponsored by Labor and Working-Class History Association/Organization of American Historians” (McCartin, Lichtenstein, and Acuff). Even amongst like-minded labor supporters and historians, there is a debate on why the power of labor has declined in recent years. Joseph A. McCartin, a professor from Georgetown University argues, that “labor’s main problems run much deeper than workers’ poorly protected right to organize or labor’s failure to mobilize more resources for organizing. […] A vast economic reorganization more fundamental than anything experienced since late 19th century industrialization—driven by container ships, computers, collapsing regulatory regimes, a crumbling industrial base, rising service economies, and changing corporate structures—is a fundamental problem for labor. […] Union movements in advanced industrial nations are declining across the board. […] Strengthening workers’ rights to organize will not be enough to meet the present crisis. We must also strengthen their ability to employ their collective power” (McCartin, Lichtenstein, and Acuff).

Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, disagrees with McCartin on two points. He states, “In France, union density is actually lower than in the United States. But the recent successful demonstrations there over a government effort to erode employee layoff protections demonstrated that when labor allies itself with other sectors of society […] the unions can speak for a large slice of civil society” (McCartin, Lichtenstein, and Acuff). Therefore a drop in union membership does not necessarily equal a drop in union power. Lichtenstein also doesn’t see Globalization as major problem. He states, “there's always been change in the political economy. The great upsurges of the 1930s were based on a new configuration of the political economy, a new structure of industry, which had only come into being between 1890 and 1910. That was a shift which made some forms of unionism, some forms of popular struggle, obsolete. Craft unionism in the basic industries, for example” (McCartin, Lichtenstein, and Acuff).

And Stewart Acuff of the AFL-CIO argues that, “The number one obstacle to growth in the labor movement is vicious employer opposition. […] Organizing is about power. It is always about power and always has been about power” (McCartin, Lichtenstein, and Acuff).

After viewing these various opinions I am inclined to conclude that the loss of manufacturing jobs equaled the loss of some of the most powerful members of the AFL-CIO. Therefore in America’s case, a loss in union members equaled a loss in power. The U.S. Department of Justice, Scott, McCartin, and Liechtenstein all seem to agree that globalization has led to the loss of jobs in certain sectors, particularly manufacturing, because many jobs have gone overseas. The U.S. Department of Justice states that new jobs in different industries will replace those that are lost and Liechtenstein seems to think that Globalization is not that bad, it’s just a big change for labor. But Scott and McCartin both see Globalization as something that needs to be addressed as a serious problem. Time will tell whether Globalization is good or bad. After studying the labor movement and watching the videos I am inclined to believe that the situation isn’t going to improve for a long time.

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