What will replace unions?

By Felix Salmon
January 10, 2011
Jim Surowiecki has an excellent column this week on the declining influence, and increasing unpopularity, of labor unions:

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Jim Surowiecki has an excellent column this week on the declining influence, and increasing unpopularity, of labor unions:

The advantages that union workers enjoy when it comes to pay and benefits are nothing new, while the resentment about these things is. There are a couple of reasons for this. In the past, a sizable percentage of American workers belonged to unions, or had family members who did. Then, too, even people who didn’t belong to unions often reaped some benefit from them, because of what economists call the “threat effect”: in heavily unionized industries, non-union employers had to pay their workers better in order to fend off unionization. Finally, benefits that union members won for themselves—like the eight-hour day, or weekends off—often ended up percolating down to other workers. These days, none of those things are true…

Labor may be caught in a vicious cycle, becoming progressively less influential and more unpopular. The Great Depression invigorated the modern American labor movement. The Great Recession has crippled it.

I can’t envisage unions ever getting their mojo back in the US private sector. At the same time, however, I can envisage a world in which the pendulum of power starts swinging back towards labor and away from capital. What I’m very unclear about is how that’s going to happen. Unions have lost their power, and Marxian rhetoric in general, about class or rent extraction or the balance of power between capital and labor, is treated with great suspicion by the broad mass of the population.

Meanwhile, of course, as Chrystia demonstrates, the people who control capital are willing and even eager to take money they would otherwise use employing middle-class Americans, and spend it on cheaper and equally productive workers abroad.

If the era of the union is over, as it seems to be, what other countervailing force will work to preserve the value of labor? Somehow I doubt that an epic shift to a new human age will manage to do the trick.

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