Will the Decline in Union Membership be Reversed? Becker
Unions strongly supported President Obama during the presidential race, and naturally they expect some pay back. A first step would be passage of the so-called Employee Free Choice Act that was supported by both President Obama and Vice-President Biden when they were in the Senate. This act would provide, among some other things discussed by Posner, public voting by employees on whether they want to form a union. I do not like public voting since workers might then be intimidated into voting in favor (or against) a union. Secret voting gives a truer picture of worker attitudes toward unions. While public voting and other pro-union legislation would tend to increase the number of union members, the economic and social forces are aligned against any major comeback by unions.
Union membership has been declining ever since 1954 when it peaked at 28% of total employment -unions' share of nonagricultural employment was then 35 %. During the subsequent half century the union share declined more or less continuously, and now is only about 11%. A mere 7% of private sector employees are unionized. The one bright spot in the union picture is the growth in their share of government employees to about 37%. The overall decline in union membership is seen also from its sharp decline with the age of individuals: the union share of workers is highest among those aged 45-64 at almost 15%, which significantly exceeds the 11% for workers aged 25-44, and the only 5% union share for workers under age 25. Older workers are more likely to be in declining more unionized industries,while younger workers are in the newer less unionized sectors.
The development of what is essentially a non-union private sector of the American economy is due to basic economic and social forces, not to the politics of Congress and the President, for union membership declined under Democratic as well as Republican administrations. The decline of jobs in manufacturing and in heavy industries, like steel and autos, clearly contributed to the overall decline in unionization since large manufacturing companies have been more unionized than other companies. The shift of jobs to smaller service-sector firms has also had a big impact since unions have been unimportant in these firms; also significant was the deregulation of the communications, transportation and utilities industries.
The degree of unionization within each private sector has also fallen greatly, as can be seen from the rapid growth of non-union workers in the automobile sector, particularly among foreign carmakers who produce in the South. For example, membership in the United Automobile Workers union (the UAW) has declined by more than one-third since 1970 as a much larger number of cars were imported from Japan and other countries, and as foreign companies set up mainly non-union plants in the Southern part of the US.
The growth of imports and the shift of employment overseas also have adversely affected the power of unions since international competition from cheaper producers has eroded the ability of unions to raise earnings of their members. In the early days of the unionization movement, unions sometimes increased worker security by providing health and retirement benefits and payments to unemployed union members, and often enforced fair and non-discriminatory rules about discharge and promotions. Non-union companies and governments are also now offering health and retirement benefits, and they have codified their personnel relations, which also considerably reduced the advantages of being in a union.
These forces apply to other developed countries as well, and many of them, especially Anglo-Saxon countries like Great Britain and Canada, also have had large declines in union membership. The declines in union numbers is much less in some countries, like Sweden and Norway, where governments enforce large scale bargaining between unions and employer confederations. But even in these countries, globalization has severely constrained the economic power of unions.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, unions enjoyed considerable popularity in public opinion. I remember being surprised when a graduate student to hear the arguments by Milton Friedman and some of my other teachers that unions were often monopolies that benefited their members at the expense mainly of other workers. As various arguments hostile to unions became more common during the past half-century, public opinion shifted against unions. Unions are considered too selfish, sometimes corrupt, as with the well-publicized troubles of the teamsters union, and they are no longer believed considered necessary to protect employee interests.
Given this radical shift in public opinion, and the fundamental economic and social forces that contributed to the decline of unions, it is unlikely that the new Congress and new President would push for radical pro-union legislation, despite the impressive victory in the past election of the Democratic Party, and the strong financial and other support the larger unions gave to this party.