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labor Do private-sector unions still have a future in the U.S.?

Brad Plumer's blog post summarizes a long and interesting essay in the latest issue of "Democracy" that analyzes the decline, and long-term outlook, of private-sector unions in the United States. He highlights 3 factors: Taft-Hartley was the beginning of the end for unions in the private sector; labor’s recent attempts to launch new organizing drives aren’t working; and organized labor tends to expand only at rare points in history.

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In the latest issue of Democracy, Rich Yeselson has a long and interesting essay considering the decline of private-sector labor unions in the United States and whether they might ever make a comeback.

The piece is way too detailed to summarize in full (which means you should read the whole thing), but I’ll draw out three salient points here:

Taft-Hartley was the beginning of the end for unions in the private sector. The piece opens with a vivid account of the birth of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, which imposed a series of restrictions on union organizing and activities. Congress passed the bill when labor was at its peak and postwar strikes were rampant: “All in all, about 10 percent of the entire American workforce withheld their labor in 1946.”

Scholars have long debated how crucial a role Taft-Hartley played in the decline of private-sector unions in the decades since, as opposed to factors like globalization. Yeselson offers a slightly recast argument here, suggesting that the blizzard of new legal restrictions “bureaucratized labor unions,” by forcing them to lawyer up and “drain[ing] the energy and creativity out of the members and their rank-and-file leadership.”

Labor’s recent attempts to launch new organizing drives aren’t working. In the last 30 years, as private-sector unions have withered, labor strategists have refocused their energies on creative campaigns to organize workers in fresh territory. The hope was that janitors and hotel maids, say, could make up for losses elsewhere.

Some of these campaigns were quite successful on a small scale — like SEIU’s “Justice for Janitors” push. But Yeselson, who worked on many of these efforts, argues that they simply haven’t been enough to stop labor’s overall decline. One reason, he notes, is that it’s simply much harder to organize on a large scale today. When the UAW organized its famous sit-down strike in GM’s Flint plant in 1937, there were 47,000 workers at stake. A single Wal-Mart store today might yield about 300 workers. . . .

Continue reading the complete column in The Washington Post

Further reading:

–Here’s Rich Yeselson’s full essay on “Fortress Unionism.” Note that he’s only focusing on private-sector unions here. Public-employee unions, he says, are a different matter entirely.

– Was the decline of American unions inevitable? Not if you ask Canada.