When 1,338 Volkswagen factory workers in Tennessee voted to reject the union this past Valentine’s Day, folks across the country sensed that something important had just happened. Newspapers splashed it on their front pages. Every national newscast covered it. This was a big deal, not just for Chattanooga or the United Auto Workers but for America.
The question nobody’s answered is: So what? Organized labor has been on its deathbed for decades. Now it’s a little more dead. We didn’t care before. Why should we care now? Why is this front-page news?
Try this: It’s news because somewhere inside, we all know that the fate of the unions is a critical piece of the long-term struggle for the character of American society. Democrats have mostly forgotten that, but Republicans haven’t. That’s made the fight a trifle one-sided.
With 14 million members, organized labor is the largest single institution in the constellation of American liberalism. But it’s a shadow of its former self at 11% of the workforce (and just 6.5% in the private sector), down from 20% in 1970 and 35% in 1955.
When a third or even a fifth of the American workforce was organized, labor was a powerhouse. You didn’t see two-term Democratic administrations adopting policies and recovery plans that left out jobs. Even Republican administrations didn’t dare. But that was then. Today unions are hardly part of the conversation. Today banks get bailed out and workers get benefits cut.
The absence is felt in countless ways. When unions disappear, pensions disappear. Job security becomes a distant memory. Pay stagnates. VW workers in Chattanooga said they didn’t need the union because their jobs pay pretty well already. But auto-making jobs pay well because the industry has been unionized for the past 70 years. The more plants go non-union, the more wages decline.
The result is today’s economic inequality. It’s been creeping up on us for years. With nobody able to demand the workers’ share, an ever-larger piece of the nation’s income and wealth has floated upwards into the pockets of an ever-smaller slice of the population.
For a long time most of us didn’t notice. It took the economic crisis and non-recovery of the last five years, the epidemic of bankruptcies, foreclosures and long-term joblessness to jolt us awake. We’re just beginning to figure out how it happened. We don’t yet have a clue how to fix it. But Chattanooga is an important piece of the puzzle.
What happened to unions? Partly they fell victim to new technologies of the 1970s, the computers, satellites and container ships that replaced workers on assembly lines and enabled off-shoring of jobs to lower-wage countries. Unions also fell victim to economic theories that called for increasing efficiency by controlling labor costs and increasing flexibility, which are fancy names for lowering Americans’ standard of living.