The machinists union at Boeing has voted to go on strike and this strike, unlike most in recent years, will bring the company's manufacturing operations to a halt. Perhaps it is fitting that the decision comes on the eve of labor day weekend.
It is not a happy time for the union movement in the United States. Private sector union membership rates are at their lowest levels since the 1920s, before the National Labor Relations Act was passed and continues to fall. Despite a few high profile strikes, labor actions are actually at near record lows. At Northwest Airlines, flight attendant and pilots unions aren't even honoring mechanic's union picket lines, while scab workers and outside contractors permanently replace the striking mechanics; the mechanic's union at NWA has been all but broken. This is also the year that the AFL-CIO finally broke up, with a group of unions frustrated by the current leadership and led by the Service Employees International Union leaving what had been for decades, a united front that had united almost every union in the United States in solidarity. The real wages of high school educated men have remained stagnant since the 1970s. Essentially all of the economic growth in the past generation has accrued to the college educated elite that runs the country. Health care costs are starting to eat away at even this status quo. Union defined benefit pensions funds are suffering from many of the woes experienced by their corporate sponsored cousins (although they are, at least, not at the whims of a single employer's health). The National Labor Relations Board has dealt a major defeat to the movement in not allowing graduate students to organize unions. The 40 hour week has vanished for much of the workforce, as exemptions have swallowed the general rule, and most families now need two workers, instead of one, to sustain a middle class lifestyle -- the American way of life has far less leisure than it once did.
Wal-Mart, one of the biggest companies in the United States, is union free, despite widespread complaints from workers resulting in legal action against it including what may be the largest ever class action gender discrimination suit. Changes in the law that allow the permanent replacement of striking workers have rendered unions impotent. A massive shift of the U.S. economy from a manufacturing based one to a service industry, as technology and off shoring replace manufacturing jobs where unions have traditionally been strong hasn't helped either. Ironically, unions are thriving best in the public sector, where generous employee benefits and merit system protections that provided job security existed even prior to unionization. Of course, part of the growth is also a product of the fact that government is to a great extent a service sector industry itself and by its very nature is ill suited to off shoring its services.
There is no obvious way that this trend can be turned around. Airlines, and the domestic automaker General Motors, are in dire straights and the threat (sometimes exercised) of bankruptcy has left their unions with little bargaining room. Smaller employers have no difficulty replacing striking work forces. For all that I support immigration (and the union movement, by and large favors legalization of immigrant workers itself), it is hard to deny the an influx of immigrant workers in the current economic and legal context has weakend the bargaining power of workers in the once heavily unionized construction industry. Farm workers, an area where unions have never been strong, are still largely not unionized and are often mistreated. Long and bitter grocery workers strikes in Los Angeles were not major triumphs for the union movement.
Admittedly, part of the problem for unions is that a working man's life is not as bad as it was a hundred years ago when they were first being formed. Unions accomplished much of what they set out to do. Worker safety has improved greatly. Now, many, if not most, on the job deaths are from causes that union leaders a century ago wouldn't have even recognized as workplace deaths -- car accidents and homicides. Worker's compensation laws and the Social Security disability program provide at least a fig leaf of care for injured workers and their dependents. Minimum wages may be at record lows in real terms or compared to median wages, but they do exist (and the vast majority of adult full time workers make more than the minimum wage). Health insurance may not be universal, but in both white collar jobs and in industries that have traditionally been unionized, it has become the norm to provide it. Individual retirement accounts provide average workers with the ability to save as much as they would have been able to manage to save in corporate sponsored 401(k)s even if they don't have employer sponsored plans (albeit without matching contributions from an employer). The economy may not be at full employment (especially after Hurricane Katrina), but there have been many times in our history when unemployment has been far more pervasive. Discrimination still exists in the workplace, but attitudes have changed to the point where it is no longer an accepted norm, even in management circles. Sexual harassment isn't gone to the same extent, but it is also less pervasive than it once was. Unlike many industrial workers of a century ago, workers are almost universally paid on or close to pay day (a sore spot here, as my own paycheck came a day late this pay period), and are paid in cash, not scrip. Job security isn't as great, but in our current economy, worker's are also more able to leave in search of employers who will treat them better when they find themselves in a bad situation. Legal rights for individual workers advanced by lawyers and government agencies have supplanted the traditional roles of the union for most American workers.
The traditional private sector union will, in all likelihood, continue to decline. In a nutshell, the movement seems impotent, unable to offer workers as much benefit as they once did. Will a new labor movement of some kind step in to fill the gap? Perhaps. But, the future is too cloudy to see what that new movement might look like.