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.
The standard explanation from the left is that this reflects the machinations of conservative intellectuals, free-market-inclined governments, and businesses who, over time, have successfully worked to diminish organized labor, thereby crushing the proverbial “little guy.”
The truth, however, is rather more complex. One factor at work is economic globalization. Businesses fed up with unions who think that their industry should be immune from competition are now in a position to move their operations elsewhere — ranging from the southern states of America, to China, India, and other developing countries — where people and governments enthusiastically welcome the influx of knowledge, capital, and jobs. In this regard, it’s always struck me as ironic that unions in developed countries regularly act in ways that essentially hamper economic and employment growth in developing nations. So much for the “international solidarity of workers.” Comradeship apparently stops at the Rio Grande.
A second and related factor is the increased mobility of people. They are more willing to go where the work is. This has always been a prominent social-cultural trait in America, but it has visibly accelerated in recent decades. Mobility often means that people change both the character of their work and their employer on a relatively regular basis. This makes it harder for unions to recruit and maintain steady membership. Unions have not adjusted to the fact that the days of people working in the same job in the same industry for most of their lives have been over for some time.
A third factor is that many unions have tried to resolve their declining membership issue by using political power to make union membership more or less mandatory in many industries, instead of engaging in the hard work of persuading employees that it might be advantageous for them to join a union. This strategy directly contradicts, of course, the principle of free association that unions have traditionally invoked as a primary moral and legal basis for their legitimacy. Many union officials simply don’t respect the fact that freedom of association cuts both ways, meaning that no one should be obliged to join civil-society organizations against their free will.
The problem with the political option is that once unions lose their political clout or influence, their ability to corral people into their ranks is diminished. That translates into people leaving unions.
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.
So is there a future for unions? In the end, it’s really up to the unions. Can they demonstrate that they can adapt to global economic realities such as cross-border competition? Are they actually willing to take the principle of free association seriously? Can they deliver real value to their members? Based on their track record to date, most union officials don’t seem especially interested in addressing any of these challenges. Instead, they continue to seek their salvation in politics. But if Wisconsin means anything, that is a sure path to extinction.
— 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).