The Real Reason Unions Are Dying

photo illustration of picketers holding signsThe country's GDP has been growing at a nice clip forever (give or take a recession or two). But in the past three decades, workers have been getting a smaller share of the pie. Many economists blame technology, saying it enables companies to increase productivity and supercharge profits, without giving workers an equivalent salary bump. But according to a new study, the real culprit is the decline of unions.

The study, published in the June issue of the American Sociological Review, looked at workers' share of GDP over time and found that the biggest drop occurred in industries where unions' influence has dramatically waned. When workers lost power, their share of the profits fell, according to the analysis by Tali Kristal, a sociology and anthropology lecturer at the University of Haifa, Israel.

Since the late 1970s, American workers' share, in the form of salaries, declined 6 percent overall. See the graph below: "Labor's share" refers to both employees and the self-employed.



But the bulk of the decline occurred in sectors such as construction, manufacturing and transportation where unions have experienced the most precipitous decline, according to the study. Kristal's findings echo the results of a 2011 study which calculated that the decline of unions explained one-third of the increase in wage inequality among men since 1973.

What about the non-unionized industries?: Kristal did find that in the Industries that were never very unionized, such as finance, real estate and insurance, labor's share actually increased modestly. Kristal explained via email that this might be because of "the notoriously high salaries on Wall Street," which climbed to dizzying heights during the booming 1990s.

More: Unions Target Federal Contractors In New Strategy

Technology plays a role: Kristal found that technology is a key factor precisely because it served to make unions less powerful. It's done this in three ways, she says.

1. It enabled employers to get rid of unionized workers. A lot of production processes over the past few decades have been automated, according to Kristal, and many of the folks who previously did those jobs were blue collar union workers.

b) It made anti-union actions by employers (legal and illegal) more sophisticated. The computer revolution empowered management, Kristal claims, enabling them to bust unions with greater force: monitoring employees, refusing to negotiate, and firing union activists.

c) It meant lower-skilled workers made less money and higher-skilled workers more, Kristal says. This division "undermines workers' solidarity," she writes, "thereby reducing the likelihood of working-class cohesion and collective action."

"For decades, science fiction warned of a future when we would be architects of our own obsolescence, replaced by our machines," wrote the Associated Press in January, announcing that this "future has arrived."

But according to Kristal, that isn't exactly true. Workers haven't been replaced by machines; rather, machines have replaced unions with nothing.

Labor Union Membership Drops to Record Low


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David Zapen

Parallel to the fall of unions, the fall in top marginal tax rates from 91% to 74% to 50% ended the maximum wage. This maximum wage, like the one at Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, forced wages to average workers to rise with income from top earners; no one could make more than three million dollars, in today's money, without penalty. Money flowed to American workers and American goods and American infrastructure and charities. Once PATCO's backing of President Reagan was rewarded with the breakup of the air traffic controllers' strike and centuries' old tariffs were torn down, Adam Smith's capitalism founded in 1776 reverted back to the mercantilism he fought. The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous were paid for with cutting off old deals to share gains in productivity, breaking the promise of 1920's Taylorism.

August 27 2013 at 8:37 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Don

I never saw my union reps until we filed paperwork to have them de-certified. Union bosses in recent years have been drawing larger salaries for themselves while not giving a whit about what the rank-and-file makes. They use too much dues money to play politics and not nearly enough on protecting their members. The death of unions in this country is almost exclusively self-inflicted.

August 25 2013 at 10:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ubu967

Can anyone tell me where I can buy a Twinkie? Didn't think so......

June 09 2013 at 8:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
chronikuad

United we stand, divided we fall.

June 09 2013 at 5:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
spearotee

The 'job' of unions is to minimize work and maximize pay.

June 09 2013 at 2:52 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
chortles22

If we dont start changing the mentality of this "sharktank",and quell the anti-union semantics out there,the recovery will be short lived--because nobody but the CEOs will make enough money to patronize these companies. A paradidgm shift in asset allocations, where instead of encouraging skilled craftsmanship by investing in quality-we promote the cheapest option available, with profit being the only consideration,of course--disguised as a favor to the American consumer---look at the cheap garbage we now have in place of what used to be finer workmanship,...better materials..a product that lasted....Instead, a few select individuals getting obscenely rich by selling the cheapest junk ever made in overseas slave camps and everyone else is just "lucky to "have a job"?..So,...thats a "good thing",..you say?..."The American way"?...No wonder some people are against us.."Freedom" is no reality for the unfortunate people working in those places. Unions would demand that these excessively wealthy companies pay a prevailing wage to the people who build the product,....is that really such an awful thing when your so fortunate, to have to pay your workers fairly?

June 09 2013 at 2:49 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Toni

Oh, puleeze, ABC. The unions are one of the factors causing businesses to go overseas for workers. The union demands were to excessive and most of the moneys went to the big Union bosses. Unions detailed the work to death. My uncle and his crew had to wait more than 4 hours while they waited for the "workers" whose job it was to turn the screw on a pipe! My uncle and anyone of his men could have turned a screw but it wasn't in their job description and therefore couldn't do or face penalties....The unions got too big and trying to reach their glory again... LIke all things, it ended up being used for ill rather than the good it began with...

June 09 2013 at 12:09 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
chnvlly

Unions destroyed themselves by doing exactly what the big bosses do: cheat the little guy. Corruption and outrageous salaries and perks for the "leadership" with little or no return for the workers. Protecting incompetent workers against all common sense. When a union worker busting his butt sees a fellow union worker sitting on his, the first worker is likely to throw up his hands in disgust the same as his boss does. And when it comes time to pay his dues, he says no. Add to that the rise of the "right to work" idea ( a thinly veiled push to increase employers income at the expense of the workers) which politicians love, being owned by the employers. Unions have their place, they are needed when they do what they are supposed to do. But let's face it, folks, the unions did themselves in.

June 09 2013 at 10:25 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
weekendtoy98dr

Why do you think corperations spend so much money trying to eliminate Unions? Paid sick leave,paid vacations,8 hour work days,Overtime premium pay,medical benefits,weekends off,saftey standards in the work place, a voice in the work place over the years these things were all given to the worker because these big corperations absolutely loved their employees and wanted to give them a fair shake right? LOL!

June 09 2013 at 9:17 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
user10181

Union can get you $10-$15 dollars a week more in your check! Join and find out! Only $20 a week dues.....

June 09 2013 at 8:56 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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