Is The Union Movement Coming Back?

Are we seeing the beginnings of a labor revival in the U.S.?

In October, the Organization United for Respect at Walmart began a series of rolling strikes, demanding decent pay and working conditions for Walmart workers. Walmart, of course, is notoriously hostile to its workers’ right to organize. A former Walmart manager, for example, described being trained to monitor the language employees used. Words like “committee,” “organize,” or “meeting” were automatically suspect and could be grounds for discipline.

Today, fast food workers went on strike in New York. Most earn not much more than the state minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. A full-time job at that rate wouldn’t even pay the rent for an average studio apartment in the outer boroughs of New York City.

We could certainly use a labor revival. Followers of this blog may recall these figures (posted at the old site) showing the correlation between the decline of American labor unions and the growth of extreme economic inequality (data source: U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States). Here’s what happened in the middle of the 20th century:


Here’s the story of more recent times:


Is the decline of organized labor the only reason for extreme economic inequality? No. Technological change, access to education, and tax policy have also affected economic inequality in the U.S. These dynamics can feed on themselves, becoming viciously cyclic: As industries are de-unionized, wages decline; as wages decline, access to education becomes more difficult; as the education gap grows, it becomes more difficult for workers to keep up with technological changes in industry.

Nonetheless, greater bargaining power for labor would do much to reverse the trend of allowing business owners and top-level managers to soak up productivity gains while workers’ wages remain flat. And the most effective way for workers to increase their bargaining power is to unionize.

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