Skip to main content

Originally published February 19, 2014 at 7:54 PM | Page modified February 20, 2014 at 6:36 AM

  • Comments ()
  • Print

Decline of unions affects all

A UW professor details the ways in which the decline of unions has contributed to inequality in the U.S.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Author appearance

Jake Rosenfeld is to discuss his new book, “What Unions No Longer Do,” at 7 p.m. March 6 at the University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle.


A clear pattern holds across national boundaries and through history: Strong labor and less inequality go together. Jake Rosenfeld told me that when we spoke about his new book, “What Unions No Longer Do.”

Just about everyone is talking about our historic levels of economic inequality, and Rosenfeld, a University of Washington sociologist, said his own interest in rising inequality led him to study what role the state of labor played in that rise.

Many scholars have chronicled the decline of unions in the United States, but it’s obvious without a research paper.

Boeing’s recent dealings with the Machinists union are an example of the degree to which companies have the upper hand in labor relations. And last week, workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee rejected unionization in the face of warnings from politicians of dire consequences.

What Rosenfeld examined is what that decline has meant for the country. It’s not pretty, and he’s only recently begun to see some slim possibility of a labor revival.

Rosenfeld references in his book and its title a landmark 1984 work, “What Do Unions Do?” by Harvard economists Richard Freeman and James Medoff, who warned that a shrinking labor movement would increase inequality. That happened, and Rosenfeld writes that the decline also made it harder for immigrants to climb into the middle class, worsened racial inequality and left working-class Americans without a powerful political voice.

In the mid-1940s and into the 1950s, more than a third of all nonagricultural workers belonged to a union. Labor leaders had the ears of politicians, and companies with unionized workers took bargaining in stride, Rosenfeld writes.

Unionization declined slowly at first with changes in the economy and the movement, then rapidly in the late 1970s. When President Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981, private companies began to harden their tactics too, aided by changes in labor law, new technology and overseas operations, among other factors Rosenfeld mentions.

Smug, out-of-touch union leaders didn’t help stem the slide.

By 2009, the unionization rate in the U.S. was below 20 percent, and most union members today work in government rather than the private sector. Those government workers tend to be better educated and better paid than many of the private-sector workers who used to make up the bulk of union membership.

People with a high-school education or less aren’t getting the pay and benefits that were available when many workers like them were unionized, and they don’t have the political power their predecessors had when large numbers were mobilized by unions.

Another group of workers has been disproportionately harmed by the decline of unions. In a chapter, “The Timing Was Terrible,” Rosenfeld mines the data on black Americans and the labor movement.

For generations, while unions lifted immigrants from Europe into the middle class, they often barred black Americans from membership, sometimes keeping black people out with violence. That began to change with the civil-rights movement, and blacks joined unions at higher rates than other workers.

While they weren’t always well treated by fellow workers at first, they were much better off than unrepresented black workers. But, as black folks settled into well-paying union jobs with benefits, jobs began to disappear. The union decline has been most damaging to black women, who had almost closed the pay gap with white women in the public sector. By 1980 in the private sector, the gap was down to 4 percentage points from 12 points in the early 1970s. As union membership has shrunk, the gap has grown wider.

The wider gap between black and white men was only slightly affected by unionization.

In another chapter, Rosenfeld writes about the Hispanic population, sorting out differences between immigrants and nonimmigrants, and between those from Mexico and those from elsewhere.

Unionization rates tend to be lowest for new immigrants from Mexico, and the jobs they cluster in are often the toughest to organize. The ladder up to the middle class that greeted European immigrants in the past isn’t so easy to find.

Unions, even those led by immigrants and children of immigrants, traditionally argued for strict controls on immigration, but it’s different now. These days, the labor movement is interested in increasing its numbers by organizing the large population of Hispanic workers. Finding ways to unionize the work many immigrants do would help reinvigorate the movement.

As he was writing the book, Rosenfeld was pessimistic about the prospects of labor reclaiming the powerful position it once held. But recently, he’s seen glimmers of possibility in all the talk about inequality. Obama says reducing inequality is at the top of his agenda; Seattle’s new mayor, Ed Murray, backs a higher minimum wage.

There is an opportunity, Rosenfeld said, for labor to talk about its role in the campaign for a minimum wage, and to connect its plight to broad-based concerns about the middle class.

He hopes his book will encourage people in academia and outside to take seriously the connection between a strong labor movement and, well, the American dream.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or


About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays. | 206-464-3346

Partner Video