I see no reason to believe that American trade unionism will so revolutionize
itself ... as to become in the next decade a more potent social influence.
... Trade unionism is likely to be a declining influence in determining
conditions of labor.
It was in December 1932 that George Barnett, president of the American
Economic Association, delivered this death notice to American labor in
his AEA presidential address. But just six months later, an unprecedented
wave of labor unrest swept through the country, and the following years
saw a threefold increase in union participation rates, unionization of
most of the industrial sector and the birth of the Congress of Industrial
Organizations, the country's most powerful labor organization to date.
Barnett's was the kind of failed prediction that brings humility to
economists and, by the same token, brings consolation to union leaders,
who use the anecdote to remind observers that rumors of their death have
often been greatly exaggerated. "The prophets of doom have often badly
misread both the present strength and future prospects of trade unionism
in America," said Lane Kirkland, AFL-CIO president, in 1980.
These days, unions are again hoping that forecasts of their demise are
inaccurate. Their numbers are at the lowest point in six decades, with
just 13.5 percent of American workers carrying a union card, continued
steep declines in membership rates and labor economists like Leo Troy
at Rutgers University titling his latest book, "The Twilight of Organized
The situation is similar in the Ninth District, where labor union membership
rates have been declining since the 1950s. Given the proud labor heritage
of district statesfrom Anaconda mineworker battles in Montana in
the early 1900s, to the 1944 formation of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor
Party in Minnesota, to the longest strike in American history (1954 to
1965) in Kohler, Wis.it seems almost sacrilege to suggest that labor
unions could soon be no more than history. But while our newspapers carry
daily headlines of airline strikes and union drives, and though many local
politicians continue to seek labor's endorsement, there is little question
that organized labor in the Upper Midwest is a weaker forcesocially,
politically and economicallythan it has been in decades.
What accounts for the decline of organized labor? What are the economics
of trade unions? Are there potential growth areas in coming years? What,
if anything, can labor unions offer to American workers to ensure that
current predictions of their demise will be as ill-founded as Barnett's?