The old song, â€śWhich Side Are You On?â€ť drew clear lines in the battles the unions once fought. It was workers against the bosses, the downtrodden against the oppressors and their hired guns.
But where are those lines today? Theyâ€™re blurred by partisan politics and a history of corruption. Unions are a shadow of their former selves, experts say. A new book by a University of Washington professor is even titled, â€śWhat the Unions No Longer Do.â€ť
Discussing the book in the Harvard Business Review, Justin Fox acknowledges that union membership is down.
â€śForty years ago, about a quarter of American workers belonged to unions, and those unions were a major economic and political force,â€ť he writes. â€śNow union membership is down to 11.2 percent of the U.S. workforce, and itâ€™s increasingly concentrated in the public sector â€” only 6.7 percent of private-sector workers were union members in 2013.â€ť
A big question raised in the book is whether the decline in union membership was the cause, or the result, of the loss of influence. In other words, did unions stop being relevant because people stopped joining, or did people stop joining because they no longer felt represented? Professor Jake Rosenfeld doesnâ€™t answer that question in his book, but he does list what unions simply no longer do.
At one time, unions helped mitigate racial inequality.
â€śFor a long time many unions wouldnâ€™t let African-Americans join, and some fought hard to keep employers from hiring them,â€ť Fox explains. â€śBut during World War II this began to change, and by the 1970s black workers were more likely to be in unions than white workers were. Unions shepherded millions of their African-American members into the middle class, and helped bring black and white wages closer together.â€ť
But that has fallen off, just as it has with assimilating immigrants, such as Hispanics.
â€śYes, there have been a few noteworthy unionization campaigns among immigrants, like the United Farm Workers in Californiaâ€™s fields and the Service Employees International Unionâ€™s efforts among office janitors and hotel workers,â€ť Fox notes. â€śBut on the whole, Hispanics are less likely to be union members than other workers are.â€ť
But hereâ€™s the key. Rosenfeldâ€™s book shows how unions no longer give workers â€śa political voice.â€ť
â€śUnions used to be perhaps the most important organized interest group, and Rosenfeld shows that, even now, union members with low education levels are much more likely to vote than non-members with low education levels,â€ť Fox writes. â€śBut public-sector union members are more educated and more affluent than the population as a whole, while private-sector union members are a dwindling and in many ways privileged breed.â€ť
What Rosenfeld and Fox both miss here is that union membership is down, in large part, because many members donâ€™t agree with the politics their dues would go to fund.
Take the issues of immigration reform with a â€śpath to citizenshipâ€ť and work permits for those already here, and health care reform. Democrats are in favor of these issues; many workers are not.
Unions do less now, because unions stopped representing their members.