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Declining Union Membership in The United States

The labor market is a domain that has faced significant changes since the beginning of the twentieth century. The technological revolution, for instance, endangered a number of jobs that could be automatized in the near future and incorporated big data in the hiring process. Additionally, the dawn of the services sector in the labor market indicated the decline in industrial jobs. Income inequality persists and grows, potentially entailing higher crime rates, the healthcare system in a worse state, and less educated population that propels the cycle. It may be argued that the cause of the growing gap between upper and lower classes partially lies in the decline of labor unions’ activity as well. The reasons for continually reducing labor union memberships in the United States may be deemed the consequence of adjustments to the local and global economic changes.

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The principal goal of labor unions is the representation of worker’s rights and amelioration of workplace conditions. The notion of this type of union stems from the idea that the interests of individual employees are similar enough so they can be satisfied by means of collective bargaining (Carrell and Heavrin 121). This approach results in a consolidation of power that, seemingly, is more effective in reclaiming rights. The perceived benefits of unification emphasize the gravity of the decline that happens, approximately, since the middle of the last century despite the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 that encouraged collective bargaining (Hatcher 13). 2012 was the year when the labor union membership dropped from 14.1% to 11.3%, demonstrating the lowest rate since the middle of the twentieth century (Hatcher 2). The tendency can be explained in a number of ways, some of which even present it as a positive sign for employer-employee relationships.

Ideas that oppose unification are often associated with conservatism in politics. The notion to a degree is exemplified by the actions taken by Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher in regard to striking employees and attempts in unification. For instance, in 1981, Reagan laid off thousands of protesting aviation workers who requested an increase in salary (Brett 5). Anti-union tendencies in the UK reached a high degree when in the 1980s, several reforms were passed, lessening the power of labor unions (Brett 5). The gesture appears rather extreme, still it, allegedly, crystallizes the approach that rightwing politics apply to collective bargaining – the tendency can be traced in a number of developed occidental countries, converting it into an international issue.

Globalization is another element that may account for the decline, as the two processes correspond in time. Universal interdependence and interconnectedness entail an increase in trade, personal mobility, and, thus immigration, and reduction in industrial capacities in an array of countries – these factors of globalization act as obstacles for unification. For example, it has been established that the displacement of people from less populated areas towards more populated ones negatively correlates with union density (Brett 5). According to several researchers, the advantages of globalization exceed the potential damage of the decline in labor trade membership (Hatcher 15). On the other hand, Meyer states that “as countries reduce barriers to trade, manufacturers in highly developed countries can begin to take advantage of lower labor costs in developing countries” (5). Attributing the decline solely to globalization may be a simplification, or as well as the decline, it may be a result of a net of processes happening worldwide.

Recently, several theories explaining the phenomenon in question were developed. Dinlersoz and Greenwood, for instance, propose a hypothesis for union labor membership decline based on the connection between technology and the unskilled labor force (21). The researchers note that “the shift from an artisanal to mass production was associated with an increase in the relative productivity of unskilled labor that led to an increase in unionization and a decrease in income inequality” (Dinlersoz and Greenwood 22). Thus, the shift towards mass production at the beginning of the last century enhanced the need for the unskilled workforce, which, according to the researchers, is easier to unionize due to its homogeneity (Dinlersoz and Greenwood 10). The situation drastically changed after the Second World War, with the Second Industrial Revolution rendering possible the replacement of the unskilled workforce with machinery (Dinlersoz and Greenwood 10). The time of the disfavoring of the unskilled labor concurs with the beginning of a continual decrease in union membership.

In order to better understand the issue, the incentives for joining a labor union in the first place should be analyzed. The perception of union members as predominantly manual workers or assembly lines workers presented by Dinlersoz and Greenwood is a notion that may no longer correspond to the actual state of affairs (Carrell and Heavrin 13). Since globalization leads to outsourcing jobs in the manufacturing domain in the United States, the public sector workers started joining labor unions more actively, and in 2009 their number outweighed the number of private-sector workers (Carrell and Heavrin 13). It is predicted that collective bargaining will increasingly augment in the public sector, as its privatization and decentralization affects bargaining units positively (Hatcher 26). In this way, the profile of individuals joining labor units altered significantly over the last decades.

From the given information, it can be concluded that the decrease of assembly-line production, globalization, and the beginning of the Information Age were the major factors that played a role in the demise of labor unions. On the other hand, it is claimed that the decline of labor union membership for its part increased income inequality, which may be the foremost drawback of the process (Dinlersoz and Greenwood 22). Dinlersoz and Greenwood state that “at the beginning of the 20th century, the income share of the top 10% was 40%. This measure first declined, hitting a low of 31% around mid-century. It then steadily increased to about 42% around 2000” (2). The scholars correlate the statistics to the decline and ground the connection in the acceleration in skill-biased technological change. The phenomenon caused the number of skilled workers and their work hours to rise, compared to the number and hours of the unskilled ones (Dinlersoz and Greenwood 9). Nevertheless, the drop in the numbers of union members is one of an array that provoked the growth of the gap between the classes of social hierarchy.

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The labor market trends in the United States transformed significantly during the last century and at the beginning of this one. The increase of the speed with which people and organizations communicate worldwide led to the contrary processes in organized associations of workers, prompting the loss of workplace solidarity and certain forms of collective bargaining. The consequences of labor union membership decline have various manifestations, among which the unequal distribution of revenues seems to be one of the most significant.

Works Cited

Brett, Meyer. “Financialization, Technological Change, and Trade Union Decline.” Socio‑Economic Review, 2017, 1–26.

Carrell, Michael R., and Christina Heavrin J.D. Labor Relations and Collective Bargaining: Private and Public Sectors. 10th ed., Pearson, 2012.

Dinlersoz, Emin, and Jeremy Greenwood. “The Rise and Fall of Unions in the United States.” Journal of Monetary Economics, vol. 83, 2016, 129–146.

Hatcher, Nina. Retention Strategies of Labor Union Membership. Walden Dissertations and Doctoral Studies, PhD dissertation, 2017.

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