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Labor unions, credited with helping workers achieve fair wages, benefits and good working conditions, as well as the creation of a mass middle class in America in the second half of the 20th century, has fallen from favor as the calendar has turned the page to the 21st century.
Once the savior of the working man (and woman), today membership in labor unions has fallen to just 9.4 percent of the workforce in Rust Belt states like Michigan – a far cry from the 30 percent and more of the total workforce they boasted as recently as 1983.
In the 30 years or so since a third of the labor force belonged to a union, numerous factors have played into reduced membership numbers. Globalization has moved jobs not only to other regions of the United States, but around the world. Technological progress has often meant that more skilled workers are needed to do a job, or that different, more highly-trained skills are needed by an increasingly diverse worker pool. A new economy,
based on the Internet, referred to as the "Google economy", which is a knowledge-based economy, has arisen in the 21st century, and those workers do not seek the broad protective shoulders of a union. Further, in the last decade, the economic crisis now referred to as the Great Recession hammered more nails into the coffin of the unions, beleaguered by legacy costs and retirees with heavy pensions and benefits. Where once union membership dominated in the private sector, today most union members are public sector workers, employed as municipal workers, government employees, teachers, and police and firefighters.
Y et, union leaders and activists assert that their eulogies are being written prematurely. While some industries, such as manufacturing in traditional fields like automotive have been permanently altered, with membership numbers skewed lower than previously seen in decades past, those in union leadership see new avenues for unionization in the private sector: for low skilled fast food workers, the continuation to organize health care workers as that sector mushrooms in growth, along with their efforts to stay relevant and influential in the political sphere.
The American labor union movement first began in the 19th century, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Textile mills, hiring large amounts of young women and children, were the first factories built in the United States. As the need grew for more and more textiles, factory owners and managers hired primarily unskilled women and children, often immigrants, because they were cheaper or even "free workers." With no laws regarding hours, wages or working conditions, these factories became crowded, filthy sweatshops where workers were paid by the number or pieces they completed....continued on page 2