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Did I Get It Right On Unions?

I've written two pieces on the irrelevance of trade unions in the modern (American) workforce in the past, but recent actions by the UAW and some unionization efforts across the food industry, media and a few other sectors of the economy made me think I had misread the situation. Then a statistic came out that revealed that despite these well reported attempts at unionization, total membership had actually slipped.


I still maintain that in the 21st Century, with a globally atomized workforce and supply chain, forming a union is like using a fork to mow a lawn.


Progressive think tanks and organizations still try to justify unionization as means to address inequality. The Economic Policy Institute, to their shame, often features this chart:





Except the chart doesn't measure what it claims. It measures this:



The above is the Labor Force Participation Rate for Men, from 1950 on, and for my money, it correlates pretty well with the post war decline in union membership. Not only that, the chart completely ignores that nasty business known as World War II. But the pivot point is practically a direct hit. There are a few other metrics that have contributed to this deterioration, but for the purposes of this discussion, this will suffice.


Surely the policies of the past decades have caused deep structural problems of inequality. But unionization can't fix the problems the nation's workforce faces in terms of access to health care, affordable housing or to compensate for a wildly regressive tax template that has served to fracture the American social contract.


As a practical matter, wage growth alone can't address the staggering challenges working Americans face, nor does targeting disparate industries that might be "ripe" for unionization solve much for the workforce at large. Someone might rejoice at the unionization of a plant somewhere in Kentucky, but there are 160 million people in the workforce, and there's no chance of reaching even 10% of them through unionization.


A CBS news report (Sunday Morning 2/25/24) mentioned the spike in strike activity for 2023. It's up sharply, but that would affect only 450,000 workers. That's if these efforts were actually successful.


In the same piece, they mentioned another attempt to unionize the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee. When I last wrote on the UAW's previous failed effort, I noted that it took less than 3000 line workers to assemble over 100,000 Passat models. The plant has now gone full EV, and those cars take even less manpower to assemble.


There are dozens of YouTube videos showing how automated a modern car factory is, but people just can't let go of the romantic pull of the post war factory era.


And they were not exactly pleasant places to work in the first place.


The only current effort I could see paying off in scale is the one taking place at Starbucks. With a national footprint and over 16,000 stores, a successful unionization would be meaningful, and has the potential to generate a spillover effect to other chains.


"Pick the hill you're going to die on," as the old expression goes. Political capital isn't infinite. If I'm gunning for better outcomes for the vast majority of working Americans, unionized or not, urban or rural, North or South, targets should be chosen carefully. There's just so much you can focus on to get results.


The union movement, sorry to say, is based on the same cloying nostalgia for the America of the 1950s that so many pine for. There's no going back. Not for anyone.


People have to engage the future they have, instead of hanging on to a past that is long gone.



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