This summer, I spent many evenings canvassing for Senator Al Franken’s campaign in my hometown of South St. Paul, Minnesota. South St. Paul is a small first-ring suburb of the capital city of Saint Paul, and until the late 20th century was known best for its involvement in the meatpacking industry: it once included the largest meatpacking plant in the world (Webb). These days, the stockyards and packing plants are gone, but as a canvasser I could often count on one remnant from South St. Paul’s industrial days: Union sympathy. Union membership was practically a given in the salad days of the stockyards, and a large number of those members, who have long since retired or moved on to other careers, retain their loyalty to their labor unions. Many of the people I spoke to claimed to be voting Democrat exclusively because of their union affiliation.
Trade unions have existed in some form or another for centuries, dating back to the formation of guilds in post-medieval Europe (Encyclopedia Britannica). The modern union is a collective of workers in a particular trade intended to pose a threat to employers who violate the union’s standards and terms. Unions’ early history in the United States was fraught with violence; employers and the government generally saw strikes as destructive to national security and well-being. It was not until the 1930’s and President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms that workers were guaranteed the right to unionize by the Wagner act (Wagner Act). The end of the Great Depression and subsequent war only strengthened labor unions. Union membership peaked in 1945 at 35.5% of non-agricultural laborers and remained stable at around 33% through much of the 1950s (Stelluto and Klein 39). Membership started on a steady decline in the 1960’s and continued through the remainder of the century, in part because of the passage of “Right-to-Work” laws in several states. These laws undermine unions’ organizing power by allowing workers to opt out of any unions their coworkers join, allowing employers to ignore the demands of unionized workers (Right-To-Work Resources). Today, 24 states have right-to-work laws, and union membership has plateaued at 11.3% of workers nationally. Most of those are public-sector employees—in the private sector, only 6.7% of non-agricultural laborers are union members (Union Members Summary). The condition of unions in the United States today is far from ideal for organizers.
Unions’ decline has coincided with the decline of the American industrial sector. Industrial jobs have a long history of unionization, creating the expectation of union representation among employees. Many service-sector jobs have no such precedent, and the loose regulation applied to many low-wage service-sector jobs has allowed employers to prevent workers from attempting to unionize. Wal-Mart in particular regularly faces accusations of intimidating workers to prevent unionization, closing stores that elect to unionize and firing workers that attempt to organize (Cheng and Spears). Wal-Mart and other critics of unionization argue that it would reduce companies’ capability to produce and endanger jobs by putting a price floor on labor through demands for increased compensation and benefits, as well as forcing workers to pay union dues for a service they may not want.
While organized unions may never regain their former strength, collective labor activism is still very possible in the United States. Fast-food workers across the country went on strike in early September to protest low wages, appealing both to their employers and to the government to pass more stringent minimum-wage laws. These strikes and protests, though organized by the Service Employees International Union, were heavily attended by non-union workers protesting alongside the union (Von Hoffman). Organized labor is certainly lying low, but these new agitations may give rise to more regular activism for workers’ rights. The American economy will have to re-shift its balance to accommodate.
“Union Membership Has Declined Over Time.” Bureau of Labor Statistics. United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Web. 10 Oct. 2014. <http://www.bls.gov/cps/labor2006/chart3-11.pdf>.
Stelluto, George, and Deborah Klein. “Compensation Trends Into the 21st Century.” Bureau of Labor Statistics. Monthly Labor Review, Feb. 1990. Web. 10 Oct. 2014. <http://www.bls.gov/mlr/1990/02/art5full.pdf>.
“Union Members Summary.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 24 Jan. 2014. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.
Webb, Tom. “Armour “A Way of Life”” Saint Paul Pioneer Press 21 June 2009. Web. 10 Oct. 2014. <http://www.twincities.com/business/ci_12649305>.
“Wagner Act.” Our Documents. National Archives and Records Administration. Web. 10 Oct. 2014. <http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=67>.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Guild (trade Association).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 11 Oct. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/248614/guild>.
Von Hoffman, Constantine. “Fast-food Worker Protests a Sign of New Union Tactics.” CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 5 Sept. 2014. Web. 11 Oct. 2014. <http://www.cbsnews.com/news/fast-food-worker-protests-a-sign-of-new-union-tactics/>.
Cheng, Allen, and Lee Spears. “Wal-Mart to Allow Unions in China.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 10 Aug. 2006. Web. 11 Oct. 2014.
“Right-To-Work Resources.” Right to Work Laws. National Conference of State Legislatures. Web. 11 Oct. 2014. <http://www.ncsl.org/research/labor-and-employment/right-to-work-laws-and-bills.aspx>.