It hasn’t been a good week for unions in America. Actually, it hasn’t been a good half-century for them, either.
Six days ago in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker won reelection after he championed bold steps to curb the power of organized labor. Meanwhile, in California, voters in San Diego and San Jose approved plans to cut benefits for new hires and old workers in public unions. These votes didn’t announce a new trend. They reminded us of a very old one.
With the 30 year-decline of manufacturing employment, union membership has fallen to its lowest rate since the 1930s. At the same time, the middle class’ share of total income has slipped below 50% … and kept falling. A graph (like the one above) can only prove correlation, not causation. But some economists suggest that the erosion of union membership is one of the most important factors in explaining the demise of the middle class. […]
Two things seem clear: (1) Structural forces, like globalized supply chains, falling manufacturing employment, and IT developments, weakened labor’s position in most developed countries; and (2) Specifically American forces — including political opposition, epitomized by Ronald Reagan’s firing of air traffic controllers in 1981, and the icky reputation of Big Labor — accelerated labor’s decline.
Here are questions for you: If our goal is a strong middle class, are unions the right place to focus our energy … or are they bad for the country? Has America passed the Rubicon when it comes to organized labor … or do we still have a reason and opportunity to pass laws that protect skilled and unskilled workers?