For many years labor unions have been in a “long slide,” declining from the 1950’s when more than one in every three workers belonged to unions to only 11.6 percent in 2021. There are many factors responsible for this, writes William E. Scheuerman in his book A New American Labor Movement. Among them are the offshoring of jobs hastened by the trade agreements that saw millions of American manufacturing jobs disappear as corporations moved plants to low wage areas around the world, automation, corporate consolidation and its all-out war on labor.

Fred Wright cartoon courtesy of United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE)

But a part of the blame rests on unions themselves, he writes, “recognizing but not placing major culpability on factors such as business unionism, ineffective organizing techniques, lack of militancy, overly bureaucratic leaders who are unresponsive to their members, and emphasis on electoral politics rather than organizing.”

An example of the latter is labor’s failure to extract some major quid pro quos from Democratic politicians even when Democrats had large majorities in Congress and a Democratic president. As a result, the Taft-Hartley Act 0f 1947 is still on the books. Section 148 of  that law allows states to outlaw the union shop, resulting in  some workers gaining the benefits of union members without joining the union and paying dues. The act has encouraged union busting since its inception, throwing quicksand in the path of union organizing. By quietly acquiescing instead of actively opposing the law and demanding that politicians commit to repealing it, unions have been shooting themselves in the foot for more than 75 years.

But there are signs of stirring in the ranks of labor. Among younger workers and women workers a new militancy is growing as a majority of Americans today look favorably upon unions, the highest number  in the past 60 years. According to the National Labor Relations Board, in just one year, from 2021 to 2022, there has been a 60 percent increase in union elections with 77 percent resulting in a union victory.

And this stirring among rank and file workers is beginning to ripple upward. Two major international unions, the Teamsters and the Auto Workers unions, have replaced their top leaderships in the past year with more militant leaders who are more closely connected to their membership. A sign of this is the United Auto Workers’ withholding its endorsement of Biden and national Democrats, insisting on a promise from them that the money now pouring in to the manufacture of electric vehicles go to companies that hire union workers and pay union wages and benefits to its workers. While very few doubt that the union will eventually endorse and campaign for Biden, considering the terrible alternative, the Auto Workers union is letting the Democrats know that they can no longer be taken for granted.

Dollars and Sense, 5/23, pages 4, 42-45