A century ago, the labour movement was a major force in lifting workers out of poverty. Union-organized strikes — such as the one in 1914 at a mine in Ludlow, Colo. — led to higher wages and broad reforms. And national activism, spawned by such tragedies as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York, produced workplace-safety laws.
In more recent times, however, organized labour has been in decline. Just 11.8 per cent of workers now belong to a union. That’s barely half what it was three decades ago, and the total would be even lower if not for an increase in unionized public-sector workers.
Making matters worse for organized labour, it has suffered a number of recent defeats at the ballot box and in state legislatures. The most recent is this week’s enactment of a right-to-work law in Michigan, once a cradle of labour, that will make it harder for unions to collect dues.
Coming after last year’s passage of a Wisconsin law stripping public-sector unions of most collective bargaining rights, the Michigan law is a stinging loss. Unions have responded with fury toward Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, and its GOP legislature for ramming the measure through with little advance notice during a lame duck session.
The wisdom of right-to-work laws is a tough call. They protect non-union employees from having to pay dues, which seems fair, except that those same employees benefit from the contracts the unions negotiate.
Labour’s bigger problem is that the vote is a symptom of its declining power. Globalization and technology have weakened its hand, but the unions have also lost public support through their own actions. Inflexible private-sector unions have helped make companies less competitive (and therefore less able to hire workers), while public-sector unions have taken state and local governments for a ride, leaving taxpayers with trillions of dollars in pension and retiree health care liabilities.
On the private-sector side, one need look no further than the auto industry. Trying to preserve pay and benefit structures not sustainable since the 1960s, labour has wreaked havoc on Detroit, contributing to the need for the bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler.
Something similar happened in the recent demise of Twinkies’ maker Hostess. Its bakers union refused to recognize that the company was hemorrhaging money in an industry plagued by an excess in antiquated plants. The result is that 15,000 jobs have disappeared when some could have been saved.
Public-sector unions, meanwhile, have all but declared war on the general public. In many cases, they have induced lawmakers to put their states and localities on a path to insolvency by approving massive, unfunded pension and retiree health care obligations. They are certain to pay a steeper price as taxpayers are forced to endure higher taxes or reduced services in the name of benefits that few get themselves.
Voters have already started to express dissatisfaction, even in some Democratic strongholds. Just a month ago, Michigan voters soundly rejected a couple of pro-union ballot initiatives, including one that would have enshrined collective bargaining in the state constitution. Earlier in the year, Wisconsin voters declined to recall Gov. Scott Walker over his role in that state’s new law, while voters in San Diego and San Jose, Calif., overwhelmingly backed reductions in public-employee pensions.
To be sure, labour did score a victory last year in Ohio, when voters repealed a law similar to Wisconsin’s. But the trend has been against it.
If labour wants to start winning some fights — and it has vowed to make repealing the new Michigan law a top priority — it is going to have to change. Showing greater flexibility, and concern for people outside their ranks, would be a good place to start.