If Donald Trump’s first week as president wasn’t depressing enough, Thursday brought a report that showed union membership fell in 2016. Union members are now just 10.7% of the overall workforce and only 6.7% of the private sector. Those are the lowest levels since the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) began tracking them in the early 1980s — and possibly the lowest since the 1920s.
Bosses and union haters will crow that unions are dying institutions and even our friends may write eulogies. But this funeral is for the wrong corpse.
What may be dying is the system of collective bargaining that developed in the years after World War II. That system is one where unions exclusively bargain on behalf of workers on a company-by-company basis, not just for wages but also for an ever-expanding portfolio of employer-paid benefits. These collective bargaining agreements emphasize peaceful resolution of disagreements through grievance procedures, mediation and arbitration and can cover many years at a time with guarantees of no strikes and lockouts.
When it worked, it really worked. The postwar period is marked by an historic rise in compensation and living standards for American workers and a sustained reduction in inequality. United Auto Workers (UAW) negotiations used to receive the same breathless news coverage that the stock market receives today. Wage increases won by the union affected the wages of even non-union workers in totally unrelated industries.