Americans Are Warming Again to Unions. Will the Relationship Last?

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With the struggles in recent weeks over Obamacare implementation, immigration reform, and the debt ceiling, you would be forgiven for not noticing the fierce battle being fought in the United States Senate over an obscure federal agency called the National Labor Relations Board, which is tasked with enforcing federal labor law and protecting worker’s rights to collectively bargain. The Senate and the President have been locked in a multi-year battle to fully staff the agency with 5 commissioners, and if some sort of deal isn’t reached by late August, the NLRB will be incapable of reaching a quorum, rendering the agency unable to function.

This drama is occurring against a backdrop of a decades-long decline in union participation, with just 11.3% of workers overall belonging to unions. The past few years have been particularly rough for the labor movement, as they have suffered set-backs on the state level, and failed to secure hoped-for labor law reforms during the first two years of the Obama Administration, when Congress was ruled by large Democratic majorities.

That being said, recent polling from both Gallup and Pew reveal that Americans’ support for unions has risen of late, with the Pew poll showing 55% of the population holding a favorable view of unions, the highest level since before the financial crisis. This recent uptick in support for unions can be partially attributed to the slowly improving economy, as it is accompanied by similar increases in favorability for corporations. On the other hand, there are a few trends — namely income-growth stagnation and the fact that corporate owners are taking a larger share of the national income than they have in generations — that would lead one to expect increasing support for unions.

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Whether you believe that this recent shift in the balance of power from labor towards capital will encourage support for unions, however, depends on what you believe caused their decline in the first place.

For many conservatives, the fall of labor represents a return to the natural economic order. University of Pennsylvania professor Michael Wachter, for example, argues that it was only through extraordinary intervention by the federal government into private business — including price controls and takeovers of entire industries — that unions were able to thrive during the Depression and into the second half of the 20th century. These interventions were justified at the time by the era’s fights against the Depression, fascism (World War II), Communism (the Korean War). But as those threats receded and economic prosperity grew, the case for federal involvement in private enterprise diminished — and the deregulation that followed spurred competition and led to the “natural” death of uncompetitive unionized firms.

The narrative on the left, by contrast, is that the decline in union participation is simply the result of the erosion of federal protection of collective bargaining, driven by Corporate America’s success at evading the labor protections that remain in place. The Center for Economic and Policy Research conducted a comparison of labor policy between Canada and the United States that supports this argument. While Canada and the U.S. are both developed, diverse economies with similar cultural attitudes, Canada had an overall union membership rate of 29.7% as of 2011, nearly three times that of the United States. Canada doesn’t have wartime price controls or the sort of regulation of industry common in America in the 1950s, yet it maintains union membership levels far higher than in the U.S.

According to the CEPR analysis, the key differences between Canadian labor movement and that of the U.S. are relatively slight but profound. In many Canadian provinces, unions are recognized by the government after 50% of a firm’s workers have indicated support for unionization, a process known as “card check.” And in most Canadian jurisdictions, if a union and management can’t come to terms on a contract, they enter an arbitration process in which a settlement is imposed upon the parties by the government. In the U.S., on the other hand, after 50% of a company’s employees decide to unionize, there must be a formal, secret-ballot election before which management has the opportunity to argue against unionization. And U.S. law does not impose an arbitration process on the parties if contract negotiations break down, a dynamic that labor advocates say enables companies to negotiate in bad faith without repercussion.

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Though these analyses differ on the cause of the labor movement decline in America, they both agree that it has to do with political factors rather than broad economic trends like globalization or post-industrialization. But are the political conditions likely to ever align in favor of labor?

CEPR’s analysis suggests that today’s labor movement requires much smaller changes to the law than were necessary at the beginning of the Great Depression. On the other hand, despite their stagnant wages and shrinking share of the nation’s total income, workers today aren’t nearly as desperate as they were during the Depression. Federal programs like unemployment insurance, Social Security, food stamps, and Medicaid, help sustain workers’ standards of living in difficult times. That may explain why the movement was unable to force those changes through Congress during the first two years of the Obama Administration, when economic uncertainty and the Democratic power in Washington were at their height — and provides plenty of reason to doubt that those changes will be enacted anytime soon.

In other words, Americans may not dislike unions as much as they did two years ago, but that doesn’t mean the country is ready jump back in bed with them anytime soon.