The Wisconsin recall election was about many things, ranging from American voters’ willingness to back significant fiscal reform, their dislike of using recall mechanisms for anything but the most serious of derelictions, to confirming the growing polarization of Americans that has accelerated since the realities of “Hope-’n-Change” were unleashed in January 2009. But if there is one group among whom the failed recall effort should provoke significant soul-searching, it is unions — and not just public-sector unions, but the union movement throughout the West in general.
The evidence for declining union membership across the developed world is overwhelming. According to the OECD’s Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, just 11.9 percent of American employees were unionized in 2008, compared to peak numbers of about 35 percent in the 1950s. The same report specified American unions were also experiencing an overall decline in membership numbers.
Across the pond, only 27.4 percent of British employees were members of unions in 2009, and in the private sector, less than 15 percent of British employees were unionized. In 2008, just 7.7 percent of employees belonged to a union in France. The equivalent figure for German employees was 19.1 percent. At the other end of the scale are the Scandinavian countries. Over 65 percent of employees belonged to unions in 2008. But without exception, union membership in all EU member states has been in decline since the 1990s. The numbers are somewhat higher when it comes to public-sector unions. This, however, can’t disguise the fact that people aren’t joining unions like their grandparents did.
Sometimes it’s because they fundamentally disagree with their dues being used to support political candidates or causes they oppose. Reagan Democrats, for instance, aren’t likely to be pleased with their union representatives lending their support to any number of lefty social causes. In other cases, erstwhile union members realize they’re just not getting value for their union dues. Union membership in Wisconsin has, for example, fallen dramatically — sometimes by as much as half — since the passage of Governor Walker’s legislation. With the political fetters off, people are voting with their feet.
— Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy, and his 2012 forthcoming Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and America’s Future (Encounter Books).