This election could decide the fate of American labor — and that’s the problem

Source: Joseph A. McCartin, Washington Post, In Theory, August 5, 2016

….How the battle between Trump and labor will unfold remains uncertain, but the battle for working-class white votes promises to be furious. That fury will owe much to a peculiarly American phenomenon: In no other advanced democracy are workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively more subject to the vicissitudes of elections than in the United States…..

Business and labor don’t have to be enemies
Source: Cathie Jo Martin, Washington Post, In Theory, August 4, 2016

….In reality, stronger and more involved unions could help the United States develop better public policy. Elsewhere in the world, unions enjoy much higher levels of support from the public — in many countries, they cover most workers and play a crucial role in forging public policies. Paradoxically, they do this in conjunction with equally strong employers’ associations…..

Unions could make a comeback — if we help them
Source: Michael Wasser, Washington Post, In Theory, August 3, 2016

….Anti-union advocates prefer to focus on the long-term decline of union membership in the United States, which can suggest that unions are unnecessary or in an inevitable decline. It is true that union density has shrunk from its peak of 35.4 percent of the workforce in 1945 to 11.1 percent in 2015. But the erosion in union membership is not a natural, pre-ordained outcome — the reality is that intentional policy choices significantly contributed to fewer people becoming union members.

Benign market forces alone do not explain the continual loss of union membership in the midst of broad support….

How employers broke unions by creating a culture of fear
Source: Kimberly Phillips-Fein, Washington Post, In Theory, August 2, 2016

Americans think they are individualists. But in reality, they’re just scared. ….

….Why are there no labor unions in America? This is, of course, an overstatement — millions of Americans still belong to unions. But the size of the unionized workforce has declined every year for 40 years. And even at its mid-20th-century peak, it was lower than in most European countries.

Many explanations for low union density turn on the distinctiveness of American culture. Americans are deemed individualists, with self-interest trumping any sense of the common good. They are driven wild with consumer longings, willing to do anything for low prices. They are entrepreneurial, identifying with their employers and always dreaming of upward mobility or striking it rich rather than claiming solidarity via working-class identity.

One might question whether this is really an apt description of American culture. But to the degree that it is accurate, it may have grown out of our history of employer intransigence and hostility to labor…..

Why are unions in the U.S. so weak?
Source: Robert Gebelhoff, Washington Post, In Theory, August 1, 2016

….The United States has had a long and complicated relationship with unions. When you look back to the labor movement at the turn of 20th century, it’s a time filled with violent strikes and nasty conflict. Politically, it’s attached to radical populist figures such as Eugene V. Debs and Bill Haywood — and none of them ever got their socialist agendas very far.

Over the course of the past century, the public has slowly been losing confidence in labor unions. By the time we got to the ’80s, voters solidly supported Ronald Reagan as he fired the country’s striking air-traffic controllers. Today, however, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and his “democratic socialists” may be bringing a more positive understanding of unions back into view.

Still, from the past to the present day, labor in the United States simply never seemed to have the same political power that it did in other countries. But why not? What does this say about our political and economic systems? Why didn’t we see corporatism take root here as it did in Europe? What factors have contributed to relatively weak unions in the United States, and can they be changed?…

Over the next few days we will hear from:
Kimberly Phillips-Fein, history professor at New York University
Michael Wasser, senior policy analyst at Jobs With Justice
Joseph A. McCartin, history professor at Georgetown University
Cathie Jo Martin, political science professor at Boston University