Can unions become relevant again?

By Felix Salmon
June 7, 2012
Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld* have an impassioned plea in Foreign Affairs for the return of unions as a political and economic force.

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Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld* have an impassioned plea in Foreign Affairs for the return of unions as a political and economic force. There’s no doubt of a very strong connection between the decline of unions, on the one hand, and the rise of inequality, on the other — and as inequality slowly tears this country apart, the need for a force that could bring the majority of people together has never been greater.

According to their figures, more unionization might reduce GDP growth by a decimal point or two, but could increase compensation for unionized blue-collar workers by between 10% and 20%, while simultaneously improving wages for similar non-union jobs. That seems like a decent deal to me. After all, the lesson of the current recovery is that GDP growth has little value if it’s not accompanied by more and better jobs.

But as the results of the Wisconsin recall election show, Middle America doesn’t trust unions to represent its interests any more. When Western and Rosenfeld say that unions should “take on the challenge of improving productivity and profitability at the local level”, and embark on a “national campaign against inequality”, I think they’re biting off much more than unions can reasonably chew. There’s really no evidence that unions are good at increasing productivity, and neither is there much evidence that unions or anybody else will ever be able to construct a campaign against inequality which really strikes a chord with most Americans.

Joe Nocera, too, has recently rediscovered a nostalgia for the days of unionization, and is right to say that the country would be better off if more jobs were unionized. But in an age where political discourse on both sides of the aisle is dominated by the influence of capital rather than labor, this kind of wouldn’t-it-be-great-if thinking isn’t going to get anybody very far, especially in a world where the idea of a job for life has long since disappeared. I don’t know what a truly modern labor movement would look like, but I’m pretty sure it won’t take the form of a political campaign against something as abstract as inequality.

The fact is that in a globalized world, American workers need their big multinational employers more than the big multinational employers need American workers. One of the biggest secular forces in the decline of labor has surely been the glut of skilled and unskilled workers coming onto the international labor force in recent decades, particularly in China. As a result, I suspect that any truly important next-generation social movement will be profoundly international in nature, and will have to make big strides in China before it has any real effect in the US. Laborers in Chinese factories aren’t just competing with US workers for jobs: they’re also, in a weird way, the best hope those US workers have for real improvements in how they’re treated and paid.

*For people wanting to link to this article: do not copy-and-paste its URL; copy my link instead. And even that will only work until June 18. Foreign Affairs really needs to understand how people share articles, its current system is a nightmare.

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