John Pejko, a 60-year-old union pipe-fitter in Great Falls, has
managed to find a silver lining in the soaring electricity prices
that cloud Montana's economic horizon. "If they decide to build
a lot of power plants and stuff," he said, "they're going to come
to guys like us to do those."
Montana could use a few good union jobs, Pejko observed, as he
ticked off a list of those lost over the last couple of decades:
a smelter in Great Falls that closed in the 1980s, taking 3,000
jobs with it; a smelter in East Helena that will soon close, taking
with it about 240 jobs. Butte's copper mines and sulfur plant, the
aluminum plant in Columbia Falls, lumber mills throughout the stateall
union; all gone or going.
When he got out of high school, "everything was union. We had
industry, everybody was working, everybody was union," Pejko recalled.
"We just don't control the work like we used to." These days, he
said, Montana is becoming a tourist site, a home for retirees, a
service economy. "It's an easy place to live, and a pretty place
to live," he acknowledged, "but I keep telling them, you can't eat
the land." Like it or notand most have strong views one way
or the otherunion members like Pejko have a hand in virtually
every part of your life. They teach your kids, fix your plumbing,
star in your favorite TV dramas and drive the city bus. They'll
pilot the 747 you take on your next business trip and probably change
the sheets on your hotel bed. If you stay in a Minneapolis hospital
or a Wisconsin prison, they'll be watching over you. Chances are
good that they made the paper you're holding in your hands right
But despite their seeming ubiquity, union workers are a dying
breed, an endangered species. For smeltermen in East Helena, shoemakers
in LaCrosse, Wis., and taconite workers on Minnesota's Iron Range,
union jobs are disappearing, and union membership rates have plunged.
In 2000, fewer than 14 percent of American workers belonged to a
union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the lowest membership
rate in 65 years, and a dramatic decline since the 1950s, when a
third of the nation's workforce paid union dues. In the private
sector, union "density," as it's called, was even lower: 9 percent.
While union membership rates are higher than the national average
in traditional strongholds like Michigan (20.8 percent), Minnesota
(18.2) and Wisconsin (17.6), and roughly the same in Montana (13.9),
they're much lower in North and South Dakota (6.5 and 5.5, respectively).
And local union activists can take little comfort in recent Ninth
District trends: Compared to the 9 percent national decline over
the last five years, union density has fallen faster in all Ninth
District states but Wisconsin.
Indeed, it's hard to have a conversation about unions with anyone
(other than a labor organizer) and not be filled with a sense that
unions, particularly in the private sector, are facing an imminent
deaththat while they may rage against the dying of the light,
their fate has been sealed by ineluctable forces of economic change
and social transformation. "I tend to be very pessimistic about
the future of the American labor movement," said Gary Chaison, a
professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester,
Mass. "I can't see how an adequate number of workers can be organized
each year to offset attrition. ... I see continued decline and loss
Union leaders aren't blind to these trends, of course, but they're
not accepting defeat. Taking comfort in each new organizing victory
and finding inspiration in past struggles, labor activists continue
to fight what they see as a battle for workers' rights and economic
justice. "To me the amazing thing is not that we've seen some decline
in the absolute numbers," said Bernard Brommer, president of the
Minnesota AFL-CIO, "but that we're able to maintain the levels that
Union members, labor scholars and business people suggest a variety
of explanations for falling union membership rates, from the decline
of heavily unionized industries to the ascendance of individualism
in American society. But a close look at the situation reveals that
a few of these factors probably play a fairly small role in the
decline of union density, and that otherssome internal to
unions themselvesmay hold the key to the future decline, or
potential renaissance, of the American labor movement.
In fact, for labor to rise again, unions may have to move past
their proud historical traditions, acknowledge the transformations
that have occurred in the global economy and go through a painful
process of rebirth that will leave future labor unions looking very
little like they have in the past.
The usual suspect: Not always guilty
What accounts for the dramatic transformation of American labor?
The most obvious explanationthe one alluded to by unionists
like Pejkois the decline of industries that historically have
had high levels of union density, especially manufacturing. At a
local level, it seems a clear and powerful factor: If a paper mill
shuts down in upstate Wisconsin, the town's union membership will
plummet overnight. A careful analysis, however, reveals that such
structural changes account for less of the fall in union density
than seems apparent.
"The decline in manufacturing is not very important," said Richard
Freeman, professor of economics at Harvard University and director
of the Labor Studies Program at the National Bureau of Economic
Research. Freeman points out that union density has dropped within
the manufacturing sector itself, so that even if manufacturing were
not a declining sector of the economy, overall union density would
still have fallen. From 1973 to 2000, union density in manufacturing
plunged by nearly two-thirds, from 38.9 percent to 14.8 percent,
at about the same rate as density declined in the private sector
as a whole. In most Ninth District states, union density has fallen
even faster within manufacturing than in the rest of the private
Scholars also point to Canada's experience to indicate that structural
explanations have limited power: While both the United States and
Canada have experienced similar changes in economic structurea
decline in the relative importance of manufacturing, increased entry
of women into the workforce, more white-collar employment, for exampleunion
density has actually increased in Canada. The most rigorous statistical
analysis confirms that the impact of structural change has been
modest, accounting for up to a third of union density decline from
1977 to 1984, but less than 10 percent of the decline between 1984
and 1991. Recent studies indicate similarly modest levels of structural
influence in the 1990s. Structural explanations, said Chaison, are
"often cited, but exaggerated."
So, what else is going on? What, for instance, would cause union
density to fall over 11 percent in Minnesota private construction
between 1985 and 1999? Ask the Minnesota Construction Trades Organizing
Association (MCTOA), which staged a mid-March rally of 400 union
members at Minnesota's state Capitol to demand the repeal of a property
tax exemption given to builders of a 540-megawatt power plant in
The MCTOA claims the plant is hiring out-of-state workers to build
the plant and undercutting prevailing union wage rates. The builders
offer just $9 an hour for all workers, MCTOA Chairman Joe Rohrer
told the Union Advocate, a local union newspaper, instead
of the $13 hourly wage commonly paid in that part of the state for
day laborers, and over $30 an hour for electricians and pipefitters.
"That's 200 Minnesota jobs lost," said Rohrer. "How many more will
we lose in the future if we allow this to set a pattern?" While
the builders say the tax exemption was not contingent on using Minnesota
union labor, the MCTOA wants the jobs for its workers and will use
its clout to try to get them.
Management inevitably focuses on the bottom line and, in most
industries, profitability has been squeezed as deregulation eliminates
protection from outside competitors, and globalization opens U.S.
markets to low-cost producers from around the world. In such an
environment, finding cheaper labor is an undeniable attraction.
The Minnesota power plant examplewith lower-wage workers moving
into the stateis somewhat anomalous: In a global economy,
the work usually moves to the low-wage labor, rather than vice-versa.
Such competitive forces close mines, lumber mills and factories
in the Upper Midwest and send work either to largely nonunion states
in the South or overseas, where unions may not exist and prevailing
wages are far lower. "We've lost hundreds of jobs at La Crosse Footwear
because they've contracted the work out to China," said Terry Hicks,
president of the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council in La Crosse. "We're
frightened that the whole entire factory, after a hundred years,
is going to be closed." Fifteen years ago, the footwear maker provided
a thousand union jobs, said Hicks. "Now they're down to 134."
International pressures in the steel industry have forced the
least efficient producers into bankruptcy and others to cut back
production. In Hoyt Lakes, Minn., 1,400 workers, most of them members
of the U.S. Steelworkers of America, lost their jobs when LTV Steel
Corp. closed its iron mine and taconite pellet plant in January.
Shutdowns announced by the Empire Mine in Marquette, Mich., will
affect 800 union members later this year. More union jobs will be
lost if Stimpson Lumber closes down its northwestern Montana mills
due to the nonrenewal of the Canadian softwoods lumber agreement
and the entry of low-priced Canadian wood into the U.S. market,
as some predict.
Even when mines, mills and factories don't close permanently,
global competitive pressures curb union demands for higher wages
and benefits-the threat of job loss is more powerful than the desire
for a raise. In early March, union workers at two Badger Paper Mills
plants in Wisconsin agreed to wage, benefit and scheduling concessions
to prevent mill closures and preserve their jobs.
It's clear that globalization and deregulation place enormous
pressure on labor unions by eliminating trade barriers and labor
restrictions that impede the flow of products and workers across
borders and among sectors of the economy. Unions have fought back,
forming international coalitions and raising issues of international
workers' rights at World Trade Organization protests and in campaigns
to improve conditions in Mexican maquiladoras and Asian "sweatshops."
While these efforts have had some impact on industrythe Wall
Street Journal reports that some industrialists are so anxious
to complete international trade pacts that they're willing to incorporate
labor standards into international agreementsthe overall trends
have surpassed labor's ability to countervail.
"Unions are having tremendous difficulty dealing with the impact
of globalization," noted Clark University's Chaison. "And whenever
they insist that sanctions be applied to countries with low labor
standards, this comes off looking like protectionism to protect
members' jobs, rather than as part of a human rights program to
help exploited workers overseas."
Chaison and other economists point out that a prime attraction
of unions to workers is their ability to offer high wages and job
protection. "The full exercise of such power requires that unionized
employers not face substantial nonunion competition," he noted,
but "unions can't increase wages and benefits, and also protect
jobs, when exposed to global competition."
Increased pressure on profitability has, in turn, intensified management
opposition to unions. That opposition, argues Harvard's Freeman,
is the "biggest factor" behind falling rates of union density. Because
their demands for increased wages and benefits are likely to have
a negative impact on profitability, explains Freeman, management
has a clear incentive to oppose unions. And in the United States,
unlike a number of other industrialized countries, labor laws allow
management to directly oppose union organizing drives. Given both
motive and opportunity, private sector management has fought unionization
Judy Anderson, a pediatric nurse in Bismarck, N.D., says she's
felt the brunt of management opposition. Last October, she and her
union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board
(NLRB) against her employer, Medcenter One, alleging that despite
20 years of excellent job performance, Medcenter fired her in September
"in order to discourage her and other employees' membership in and
support of" the union.
Anderson had taken a lead role in organizing a union drive for
nurses at Bismarck's Medcenter One and said the hospital fired her
to crush the union. The hospital said she was terminated for performance
reasons. With the NLRB's intercession, the parties settled their
dispute in December: Anderson was offered her job back (she declined)
with back pay (she accepted), and Medcenter, though admitting no
violation of NLRB laws, agreed to post a notice to employees stating
that the hospital would not interfere with unionizing efforts.
The Medcenter dispute became a cause célèbre in
Bismarck, with public rallies, petition drives and a full-page ad
in the local newspaper from the hospital's CEO. But unionizing efforts
were squelched, at least for a while. "I think it's going to be
a little slower now," said Shelley Seeberg, AFL-CIO state director
for North Dakota and South Dakota, "just because of the scare tactic
that they used. People are a little more cautious."
While it's illegal to fire employees for organizing a union driveand
Medcenter denies having done sounion leaders and academics
say that dismissals and other measures which are legal (for example,
warning employees that unionization might necessitate cutbacks,
holding mandatory employee meetings to speak against unions) are
an increasingly common and effective strategy used by management
to discourage unions.
NLRB data show that in the 1950s, several hundred workers each
year would file complaints saying they were fired because of their
support for union organizing efforts, according to a Southern Methodist
University study. By the late 1960s, reprisal complaints had climbed
to over 6,000 a year, and during the 1990s, more than 20,000 workers
filed complaints every year. "Many employers have come to view remedies
like back pay for workers fired because of union activity as a routine
cost of doing business," said Lance Compa, a Cornell University
labor relations professor.
Another Cornell researcher, Kate Bronfenbrenner, said that during
labor negotiations in the manufacturing sector, "70 percent of employers
threaten to move overseas, yet fewer than 10 percent actually do."
Unions win only 33 percent of election campaigns where such tactics
are used, according to Bronfenbrenner, compared to a 51 percent
win rate for all elections. So the warnings seem to work, she said,
and even if workers do vote union, the employer will use the threat
to keep the bargaining demands low. "It's perfectly legal to put
up on the wall a photograph of a plant that closed in the aftermath
of a union drive," notes Bronfenbrenner. "Perfectly legal, but it's
clearly a threat."
Rules of the game
John Remington, director of the University of Minnesota's Labor
Education Service, said the importance of employer opposition is
illustrated by the difference in Canadian and U.S. union density.
Canadian labor laws vary by province but tend not to permit employer
opposition during union campaigns. "The employer can't take a position,
and that's a real difference," said Remington, "[which] may explain
why in the 1950s, Canada and the United States had unionization
percentages about 33 percent, and today Canada is 47 percent and
we're at 13.5."
Other scholars argue that the quantitative impact of anti-labor
management practices is difficult to assess, in part because the
strength of management opposition is so closely intertwined with
other factors, particularly global competitive pressures. Union
density would undoubtedly be higher if management opposition were
less intense, they say, but the fundamental point is that management
will continue to oppose union organizing as long as it is economically
sensible to do so.
Changes in U.S. labor law could alter the expression of management
opposition, but all observers agree that such changes are unlikely
at the national level, with Republicans in control of both ends
of Pennsylvania Avenue. The last serious attempt to reform labor
laws was the ill-fated Dunlop Commission. But the 1994 Dunlop proposals
were ill-timed politically, emerging just as elections ushered in
a conservative Republican House. "It was more than dead on arrival,
it was like King Tut on arrival," commented Joel Rogers, a law professor
at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Even at the state level, pro-labor legislators in the Ninth District
often fight an uphill battle. North Dakota state Sen. Lonny Winrich
brought three pro-labor bills before this year's Legislature and
none of them passed.
One of Winrich's proposals would have altered management economics
by forbidding the use of public funds to hire labor lawyers to advise
management on anti-union campaigns. The measure, based on a California
law, was a response to efforts by Medcenter One, which retained
a Chicago labor law firm to help them deal with the nurses' unionization
attempt. Arguing against the bill, Sen. Duane Mutch said it would
require onerous bookkeeping for business and have a regressive impact
on the state's economy. The bill was defeated 32-15, on a straight
Rise of the individual
Another reasonable explanation for the decline of unions is the
sense that American culture has grown more individualistic. We no
longer seek collective solutions like those afforded by unions,
goes the argument; instead, we depend on self-help and individual
responsibility. Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset of George Mason
University is a key proponent of this view, arguing that unions
that were integral to American culture in the early and mid-1900s
are no longer as essential in the atomized, self-oriented society
of the 21st century.
Some economists give credence to this viewpoint, though conceding
the difficulty of quantifying a cultural mindset. Others remain
skeptical. "I think the 'rampant individualism' [argument] is vastly
exaggerated," said Freeman, who points out that some segments of
the American workforce that we perceive as highly individualistic
are staunch union supporters. Graduate students and doctors, for
example, are growth areas for union organizing. "And think of the
most individualized people in the world: movie stars," Freeman said.
"They're 100 percent unionized and they will die for their union."
Leaving aside arguments of structural change, labor law inadequacies,
management opposition, global competitive pressures and individualism,
some of the decline in the percentage of American workers belonging
to unions is undoubtedly due to factors within the labor movement
itself. American unions have long struggled over whether to devote
resources to servicing current members or organizing new ones. U.S.
unions also suffer from poor public image and a lack of a forward-looking
growth strategy. In essence, unions have done little to build demand
for their product.
"Union, to a lot of people, is a four-letter word," noted John
Forkan, business manager of Plumbers and Pipefitters, Local 41,
in Butte, Mont. The image of organized labor as corrupt, old-fashioned
and self-interested is a powerful stigma, fueled by scandals from
the past and not-so-distant past.
"We have to fight a very bad image," observed Bruce Glover, the
Minneapolis-based general chair of the northwestern U.S. branch
of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, whose members
build and maintain bridges, tracks and buildings for the rail system.
The media portray union members as "gangsters with thick necks and
big gold chains," said Glover, and suggest that unions are "corrupt
organizations that take your money ... and keep unproductive, bad
workers at the workplace."
The image is largely undeserved, according to Glover and other
labor advocates. "We're not perfect, obviously," said the AFL-CIO's
Brommer. "We've got our scars and warts and blemishes, but by and
large, I think the labor movement has made a significant contribution
to this nation. I'm proud of that."
Current opinion polls indicate that while labor's public image
is below approval levels found in the late 1970s (as is true for
most institutions in the United States), its reputation has improved
in recent years. In 1977, 39 percent of those surveyed by Gallup
said they had "quite a lot" or "a great deal" of confidence in organized
labor. The ratings declined to 22 percent by 1991, but increased
to 25 percent in Gallup's June 2000 poll. Other surveys have found
that negative feelings toward unions have declined, as well.
Polls indicate that American workers may also be more likely to
join unions than previously. Surveys by Peter D. Hart Research Associates
ask respondents whether, given the opportunity, they'd vote for
a union at their workplace. Forty-two percent of potential union
members in Hart's January 2001 survey said they would, up from 30
percent in 1984.
"Obviously, saying you'd vote 'yes' on a survey may or may not
mean you'd actually vote 'yes' under the conditions of a real organized
drive," observed Guy Molyneux, senior vice president at Hart Research,
but he considers the trend significant. He also noted that younger
respondents were much more likely than older to say they'd vote
The level of "yes" vote sentiment is surprisingly close both to
the percentage of the public-sector workforce currently belonging
to unions (37.5 percent), and with the numbers reported by Freeman
and Rogers in a recent book, What Workers Want, which reports on
a survey conducted as follow-up to the Dunlop Commission. Freeman
and Rogers found that 32 percent of all workers surveyed said they
would like a union form of employee representation, a proportion
that rose to 44 percent if, hypothetically, management did not oppose
unionization. Of union members surveyed, 90 percent said they would
vote in a new election to keep the union.
Don't mourn, organize
Whatever it is that workers want, American unions have yet to capitalize
on what appears to be a significant market opportunity: the gap
between the 30 percent or 40 percent of workers who say they want
unions and the 13.5 percent who actually belong. By devoting little
money and time to organizing new members, they've neither modernized
the message of what unions can offer today's workers nor developed
efficient recruiting methods. "The major failure of the American
labor movement in the 1970s and 1980s was that they stopped organizing,"
noted Cornell's Bronfenbrenner. Faced with serious management opposition
in the 1980s, "they stood like deer caught in the headlights for
almost a decade."
Organizing drives are run largely by local union chapters, whose
members may rationally decide that devoting resources to gaining
new members is less important than servicing current members. John
Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO since 1995, has sought to counteract
the "service" orientation, exhorting unions to achieve an annual
target of 1 million new members. But organizing is labor-intensive
and expensive: At an estimated cost of $1,000 per new member, achieving
Sweeney's goal would cost up to $1 billion. Efforts over the past
year fell far short, with the federation's affiliated unions reporting
(optimistically, by most accounts) that they'd signed up perhaps
Observers note that unions devoted major resources in 2000 to
political campaigning rather than organizing, working in particular
to elect Al Gore, an effort for which they now feel they're paying
a price as the Bush White House takes steps viewed unfavorably by
labor. And indeed, data indicate that organized labor did turn out
union voters, helping Gore win a majority of the popular votean
indication that unions are not as impotent a force as some might
In the Ninth District, some unions have bucked the trend, devoting
major resources to organizing new members, and tapping into potential
"markets" that have heretofore largely been ignored by organized
labor. "They look at these numbers just like you and I and they
know that they have some real challenges," observed Duane Benson,
executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership. "Like
employers when they have a worker shortage, they're moving into
markets that they historically weren't in."
For the United Steelworkers, who've lost thousands of members
to the closing of mills and mines, that has meant organizing nurses
and other health care workers, about 2,500 in Minnesota over the
last few years, including a major victory at Duluth Clinic in 1998.
Other unions are hoping to organize high-tech workers, graduate
students, physicians and immigrants.
"The unions have done a very good job of starting to go to a lot
of people that they haven't gone to before, immigrant workers being
one big part of that," said Larry Weiss, who recently launched an
immigrant workers' rights center at the Resource Center of the Americas
in Minneapolis. Five service and construction union locals have
enrolled immigrant union members "in whom they see leadership potential,
but who are hampered by their lack of English," said Weiss. The
center offers English lessons taught in the context of workplace
Weiss points to the growth of labor-church-community networks
in the Twin Cities and elsewhere in the country as an organizing
model that has begun to counteract labor's poor public image. In
1999, the Twin Cities network provided major support during the
Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) unionizing drive
at Minneapolis' Holiday Inn Express, during which immigrant workers
were fired and then reported to the Immigration and Naturalization
These networks and immigrant worker councils are models that labor
historian and activist Peter Rachleff at Macalester College in St.
Paul believes may help unions grow in the future. "They have a real
possibility of being a building block, if not the building block,
of a new labor movement," said Rachleff. But, he added, new kinds
of unions have often "experienced a good deal of resistance from
the remnants of the old labor movement."
More traditional arenas for organizing include the public sector,
which is the Ninth District's biggest membership growth area, though
density is largely stable. In Wisconsin, the American Federation
of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is actively organizing
correctional officers in state prisons. In March, they launched
a campaign to unionize administrative support workers in state agencies.
And card dealers and waiters will be likely organizing targets if
state policymakers agree to casinos in Kenosha and Hudson.
The only other major sector in a Ninth District state where union
density has grown in the past 15 years is private construction in
Wisconsin, where union membership rose 82 percent from 1985 to 1999,
faster than employment growth. "In union construction, we've taken
a huge part of our budgets and put it toward organizing," said Eric
Anderson, business agent for the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers
and Allied Workers in Eau Claire, Wis. "We want to maintain our
Anderson says that management opposition is less a factor in construction
union organizing where management has less daily contact with workers
than in a factory setting. Moreover, "unions have gotten smarter,"
he said. "We're not asking for the whole pie, just for our fair
share. ... We have to be sensitive to [the contractor]. We're the
Unions elsewhere in the Ninth District emphasize the importance
of offering training programs, both as a means of attracting members
and to persuade management that hiring union workers will increase
productivity. "We're starting to make more of an outreach into trade
schools, and adopting changes to apprenticeship standards and training
curriculum to recruit," said Forkan in Butte. "You've got to have
some creative ways to stay in existence."
Whether unions will collapse or revive depends on a number of forces
beyond their control, and several that only they can affect. Some
labor economists predict that unions will rise again only if the
country faces a war or a massive economic downturn. But come what
may, union members will doubtless continue the struggle.
John Pejko, the Great Falls pipefitter, says they're doing what
they can. "Our numbers have grown a little bit," he observed. "We
were going backwards until about five years ago, and then we had
an all-out organizing campaign. And just like our general president
said, we're no more than a whore, we're just trying to sell ourselves,
you know. So that's what we've got to do, is make ourselves look
as good as we can and do the best job we know how. ... And it's
the truth. You've got to sell yourself to make your organization