The New York Times today published an article by Steven Greenhouse describing the decline of the American Labor movement from its height as a cornerstone of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign.
The author’s main point is that unions no longer have the power to deliver the votes of the members to their preferred candidate of Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
Support among their own rank and file would be far less of a challenge to organize than defeating some of their larger foes. Clinton has been making many appearances with union leaders on the campaign trail. Persuasive pamphlets can easily be distributed to members. While many of the rank and file may support Sanders in the primary, he is far less of a threat to their power than Trump.
Turning the rank and file against Trump or any other eventual Republican nominee would only be the top of labor’s clout if it wishes to stay relevant. Even if Hillary Clinton is elected President, unions would need to continue to fight on multiple fronts at once.
The author points to the rise of the Right fueling by the Koch brothers’ money machine Americans for Prosperity as the reason labor has lost ground in Wisconsin, Michigan, and now West Virginia.
The problem for Labor is how to gain an edge at the bargaining table. Or quite simply, how it must learn to play on the battlefield of the 21st-century, which is far more global than the time period when Labor reach its zenith in the mid -20th century.
Furthermore, unions have been unable to reverse their ever dwindling numbers. At its peak, one-third of the American workforce was a member of a labor union at the height of the modern industrial era.
According to the chart above which originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the percentage of union membership declined from nearly 25% in 1973 to 11.1% in 2014. Without their former numbers maintaining a financial disadvantage has taken its toll.
Labor was assailed from all sides at one point: big and small business owners fought labor in the marketplace while many social liberal interest groups fought for a voice in the Democratic Party.
Granted, labor has made some strategic alliances with all groups at one point or another. Many leaders of unions come from a variety of backgrounds and include women now. An unsound environmental project might also have poor labor standards. Academics in eastern universities often ponder many of the questions of salary and employment that unions worry.
To combat the Americans for Prosperity, labor needs to find a way to increase its support among the general public to help it at the bargaining table both with elected officials and other interest groups.