UW News

February 12, 2014

Jake Rosenfeld explores the sharp decline of union membership, influence

News and Information

Book cover of "What Unions No Longer Do"

“What Unions No Longer Do” was published in January 2014 by Harvard University Press.

Jake Rosenfeld, a University of Washington associate professor of sociology, examines the far-reaching economic and social consequences of the decline of organized labor in his new book, “What Unions No Longer Do.”

Q. You write that organized labor in the early to mid-1900s was a major factor in promoting economic justice, even for workers not in unions, and led to the expansion of the middle class. Can you explain?

A. By the late 1940s/early 1950s, the labor movement had organized roughly a third of all nonfarm workers in the U.S., including such major industries as auto and steel. Nonunion firms often matched the pay levels and benefit packages of their unionized competitors. Why? First, if you’re an owner of a new business looking for some guidance on how to set pay at your company, you’ll often just mimic what the most successful company in your industry is doing. If that firm happens to be union, then you’re paying union-level wages regardless of whether your company is organized. Second, many nonunion companies wanted to stay that way – and a tried-and-true way to stay nonunion was to keep your workers happy by paying them relatively well.

Rosenfeld will talk about “What Unions No Longer Do” at the University Bookstore Thursday, March 6, 7-9 p.m.

Q. What are some examples of how unions equalized the playing field for historically disadvantaged workers?

A. Despite the stereotypical image of organized labor as the protector of blue-collar white men during the post-WWII decades, millions of African-Americans integrated occupation after occupation and organized in unions. By the early 1970s, two out of every five African-American men in the private sector belonged to a union. By the end of the 1970s, almost one out of every four African-American women in the private sector belonged to a union – an organization rate roughly twice as high as the corresponding rate for white women. African-Americans thus benefited from the higher pay and more transparent promotion procedures in union firms.

Q. Big labor peaked in the 1940s and 1950s. Why did it begin to decline?

A. A common set of economic developments – including the global recession of the late 1970s/early 1980s – put real pressure on labor movements throughout the industrialized world, with one result being declining representation rates almost everywhere. But the decline here in the U.S. was steeper and more sustained because American businesses began to develop a set of effective strategies to rid themselves of existing unions and prevent new ones from coming in. This effort was aided by a political turn to the right, which prevented the passage of any new labor laws that would rebalance the playing field a bit and help organized labor regain some of its lost ground.

Q. You make the case that the decline of organized labor is the main cause of America’s current inequality gap. Why?

A. Much has been made about the importance of globalization, technological change, and the resulting premium on highly educated workers as the primary contributors to our current inequality levels. It’s crucial to emphasize, however, that America didn’t experience technological change and globalization alone – so did the rest of the industrialized world. Yet these countries are not experiencing the same steep rise in inequality that we have. A major culprit is the difference in unionization rates. Canada has a unionization rate two to three times that of our own and lower inequality. European countries like Norway and Sweden have much lower inequality and organization rates well above 50 percent. Supporters of organized labor should do much more to connect the issue of growing inequality in this country to the desperate plight of the labor movement. The historical pattern is clear; the cross-national pattern is clear: high inequality goes hand-in-hand with weak labor movements and vice-versa.

The UW Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies will celebrate the release of Rosenfeld’s book on Thursday, March 6, 7-9 p.m., at the University Bookstore, 4326 University Way NE.

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