Why Has the Labor Movement’s Power Diminished?

Source: Ramin Talaie/Getty Images

Source: Ramin Talaie/Getty Images

Organized labor has had a tough run over the past decade. Union membership is in decline, worker’s rights are beings stripped away, and jobs are being outsourced. Labor groups are losing influence in the face of growing corporate power, and the results have been devastating to certain areas of the country that once depended on reliable, well-paying jobs.

So what happened?

Well, it’s complicated. But one of the biggest factors playing into the labor movement’s loss of influence has been an overall shift in the makeup of the U.S. economy from being manufacturing-based to service-based. Manufacturing, for the most part, now takes place overseas or in foreign countries, where labor is cheap and laws are lax. Businesses have found it more profitable to have products assembled half a world away and shipped to stores here in America rather than actually opening up a factory and having the work done domestically. It’s a byproduct of globalization, and understandable from a business standpoint.

As those jobs have shifted to foreign markets, what’s left for the millions who used to depend on them? For the most part, they have shifted to the service sector. That is a rather all-encompassing term, and can mean anything from working in restaurants and hotels to being a plumber or HVAC technician. The main difference between manufacturing and service-based economies is that one is more or less consolidated while the other is fractured.

Manufacturing usually takes place in one area, in large, dedicated factories that are a costly fixed-asset. This makes them prime places for labor to organize, and walk out if need be. On the other hand, service-based jobs have a much harder time organizing. Service-based businesses can run the scale in terms of size and scope, and can rely on unskilled workers to take low-paying jobs.

It’s because the service-based economy is so fractured that unions and labor movements have suffered. Simply put, it’s hard to organize across industries as diverse as fast-food and retail. Big business has essentially used the old ‘divide and conquer’ tactic to diminish labor’s collective power.

Source: Pew Research Center

Source: Pew Research Center

By moving from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based one, breaking people up into smaller groups, specialization in more concentrated circles has made it easier for businesses to fight off labor organization efforts. While this may be good for business owners and shareholders, it’s a different story for the working class.

Unions have become a major target for those on the right, especially in the fallout of the recent recession. Organized labor has been blamed for the decline of the manufacturing economy itself, particularly in places like Detroit, which put itself on the map thanks to the automotive industry. As the big auto makers of Detroit declined, so did the city itself. Politicians and enemies of organized labor blamed the downfall on greedy and overzealous unions, which likely played a part, but failed to assign responsibility to the companies that made some questionable decisions when facing increasing competition from Japan and Europe.

Today, union membership has declined, along with public support for organized labor. The Pew Research Center says that union membership in 2013 stood at only 11.3 percent, down from over 20 percent 30 years prior. In the 1950s, which many consider to be America’s economic heyday, more than a third of all employed American adults belonged to a union. Today, 14.5 million Americans can be counted as union members. Again, this is a result of the shift to a service-based economy.

As the economic picture in America becomes more polarized in terms of inequality, it’s a justifiable question whether or not the strength of organized labor is tied to the country’s overall prosperity. Union membership was at its peak in the ’50s, and that was also the most economically prosperous period. Today, inequality is at record levels, and organized labor is in rapid decline. There are a multitude of factors to take into consideration, of course, but the two do seem inextricably linked.

Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

As business has used a method of isolation and fracturing to weaken the power of organized labor, the wealthy have also put their money to use in state and local governments. The most glaring and egregious example took place in Wisconsin just a few years ago when Governor Scott Walker enacted a plan to strip unions of the right to collective bargaining. He claimed it was all an effort to rescue the state from bankruptcy, a dramatic saga played out that eventually saw Walker’s law pass.

In negotiations, the unions declared that they would forgo certain stipulations in order to save the state money. His rejection of their offer more or less proved his intention was not based on fiscal realities, but rather political motivations to strip unions of power. Also, the fact that he handed out a massive tax cut to big business just prior to claiming that it was the unions that were bankrupting Wisconsin really hurt his case.

This is but one example of the political threats to organized labor. Many others have been taking place across the country, and they seem to be working as planned. As a result, we’re left with an economy full of workers that have a very difficult time organizing, and are isolated in many respects. The combination of hostile legislators, business-friendly policies, and a shifting economic landscape have effectively led the organized labor movement to where it is today.

Organized labor and unions do have their problems, but their influence has led to a vast improvement in quality of life for millions. Forty-hour workweeks, weekends, child labor laws — all of these things were fought for, and won, by organized labor. That doesn’t mean every employee needs to make a six-figure salary and own a new car every year. It doesn’t even mean that we need widespread wealth distribution, or any other drastic measures. It simply means that America has seemingly been stronger when workers had a more powerful voice. While today’s unions may differ in many respects from those of yesteryear, it’s important that the workers retain a voice.

Labor’s power may be at an all time low, but America still depends on the ranks of blue collar, middle class workers to keep things running.

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