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The Decline of Union Power

The Decline of Union Power

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The changing conditions of the 1980s and 1990s undermined the position of organized labor, which now represented a shrinking share of the work force. While more than one-third of employed people belonged to unions in 1945, union membership fell to 24.1 percent of the U.S. work force in 1979 and to 13.9 percent in 1998. Dues increases, continuing union contributions to political campaigns, and union members' diligent voter-turnout efforts kept unions' political power from ebbing as much as their membership. But court decisions and National Labor Relations Board rulings allowing workers to withhold the portion of their union dues used to back, or oppose, political candidates, undercut unions' influence.

Management, feeling the heat of foreign and domestic competition, is today less willing to accede to union demands for higher wages and benefits than in earlier decades. It also is much more aggressive about fighting unions' attempts to organize workers. Strikes were infrequent in the 1980s and 1990s, as employers became more willing to hire strikebreakers when unions walk out and to keep them on the job when the strike was over. (They were emboldened in that stance when President Ronald Reagan in 1981 fired illegally striking air traffic controllers employed by the Federal Aviation Administration.)

Automation is a continuing challenge for union members. Many older factories have introduced labor-saving automated machinery to perform tasks previously handled by workers. Unions have sought, with limited success, a variety of measures to protect jobs and incomes: free retraining, shorter workweeks to share the available work among employees, and guaranteed annual incomes.

The shift to service industry employment, where unions traditionally have been weaker, also has been a serious problem for labor unions. Women, young people, temporary and part-time workers -- all less receptive to union membership -- hold a large proportion of the new jobs created in recent years. And much American industry has migrated to the southern and western parts of the United States, regions that have a weaker union tradition than do the northern or the eastern regions.

As if these difficulties were not enough, years of negative publicity about corruption in the big Teamsters Union and other unions have hurt the labor movement. Even unions' past successes in boosting wages and benefits and improving the work environment have worked against further gains by making newer, younger workers conclude they no longer need unions to press their causes. Union arguments that they give workers a voice in almost all aspects of their jobs, including work-site safety and work grievances, are often ignored. The kind of independent-minded young workers who sparked the dramatic rise of high-technology computer firms have little interest in belonging to organizations that they believe quash independence.

Perhaps the biggest reason unions faced trouble in recruiting new members in the late 1990s, however, was the surprising strength of the economy. In October and November 1999, the unemployment rate had fallen to 4.1 percent. Economists said only people who were between jobs or chronically unemployed were out of work. For all the uncertainties economic changes had produced, the abundance of jobs restored confidence that America was still a land of opportunity.

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This article is adapted from the book "Outline of the U.S. Economy" by Conte and Carr and has been adapted with permission from the U.S. Department of State.

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