The decline of the American labor movement is—for a number of reasons—a pretty good marker for the broader dismantling of the New Deal and, therefore, for the political roots of inequality in the United States. Union losses, as we shall see, account in no small part for rising inequality, especially for men and especially in the 1970s and ’80s. These losses, in turn, have shaped the political environment: midcentury unions, representing a third of the private workforce, fought and won battles over trade, workplace safety, social policy, and civil rights; with union membership at 6.7 percent in the private labor force (2013), those battles (let alone any victories) are growing rarer and rarer.
Union decline has also fed inequality because, in the American context, so much is at stake at the bargaining table. In settings where union coverage is even and expansive, and where workers (and employers) can count on a decent minimum wage and universal health and retirement benefits, the stakes of collective bargaining in the private sector are relatively low. In the United States, by contrast, economic security is shackled to private job-based benefits, and uneven patterns of union coverage have always made it harder to organize bottom-feeding regions and firms. Employer and political opposition, in this respect, is fierce not because the labor movement is strong, but because it has never been strong enough to to socialize job-based benefits or to take wages out of competition…..