Did Technology Help Kill The Union?


Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Graph: BoogaLouie/Wikimedia Commons

If you're a political animal, then you'd already know that the victory of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in beating the recall election last Tuesday was heralded as yet another death knell in the popularity of labor unions in the United States (his opponents, however, argued that he won by outspening his rival by a 7 to 1 margin).

Indeed, as the graph above showed, union membership has been declining in decades. But what caused it?

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic argues that there's an economic reason to the decline in the power of the unions: the rise of technology. He pointed out the argument of Emin M. Dinlersoz and Jeremy Greenwood in "The Rise and Fall of U.S. Unions":

In the second half of the 20th century, the information age did a few things that badly hurt unions. First, robots replaced unskilled workers in factories. Second, IT created complicated machines and programs that required something more than assembly-line competence. (Third, although this isn't prominently featured in the article, multinational companies got savvier about offshoring cheap labor that wasn't automated.) Just as Ford's innovation had disproportionately empowered unskilled workers, who are more likely to unionize, the information age had had disproportionately empowered skilled workers, who are more likely to not unionize.

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Loss of certain industry is killing the member count of existing unions, but the decline in overall percentage (meaning the lack of unions overall in the workplace) has something to do with the fact that very few unions do much to noticeably protect or assist their membership any more. Some of that is the unions' fault, with union leadership worried more about themselves and their egos than their members, and some of that is because the primary tool at the bargaining table on both sides is now simply labor law. The corporation keeps on eating at the union agreements until all that's left is what they can legally get away with. Yeah unions help make sure they don't cross that line, but a) they shouldn't have to, and b) one of the other benefits of the information age - public whistle-blowing, means it's not as necessary any more.
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Good points! And I think an additional factor may be that unions (historically, collectively) have already won most of the rights American workers wanted: 40-hour week, pay for overtime, health and safety laws, etc. Now that we have those, what's left for unions to use to get us fired up about membership?
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Does the paper go into the corresponding trends in other industrialized countries? If automation were the key to union membership decline then surely it would be seen elsewhere. A quick search found http://www.samf.aau.dk/~jlind/tekster/IJES%20article%20on%20Ghent%20system.htm which says that union membership in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland peaked in the 1980s and 1990s at 80% of the labor force.

That link points out that in those countries unemployment insurance was done voluntarily, through the unions. This of course makes union membership more attractive. The paper goes on to say "This seems to indicate that unions in the three countries may be facing this additional threat on membership losses in addition to the tendencies known from other countries, such as industrial restructuring, welfare state interventions, individualisation and globalization."
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There's also the issue that unions are one of the major reasons that the manufacturing workplace is as mechanized as it is. One of the major efforts of unions has been to increase wages and benefits, which also increases manufacturing costs for the manufacturer. US industry has largely turned to mechanization to offset this cost increase and improve per-worker productivity.
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