private sector unions

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In 1973, I began practicing law.  The law firm with which I was associated represented both unions and management, a very unique client base to say the least, but one which provided me a deep insight into labor relations in the United States.  In 1973, private sector union membership represented 25% of the national workforce.  Today, that percentage of union membership is 6.6%.  Notwithstanding that the workforce has nearly doubled during the same period of time, private sector union membership has decreased from 38 million to 20 million.  This decline represents not only a 50% decrease in union membership and union dues but a dramatic decline in political influence in the cities, states and the Federal governments.  How, in such a short period of time, historically speaking, did such a calamity occur, especially when during the same period of time public sector unions grew exponentially representing today nearly 75% of the public sector workforce?


When unions began developing in the 1930’s, they concentrated their organizing activity on the low hanging fruit of America’s industrial base: manufacturing, construction, tool and die, etc.  WWII and the 1950’s were the halcyon years of union strength and power.  Private sector union membership in the workforce reached an all-time high of 35%.  Wages, benefits, vacation and sick days increased and work rules became more stringent thereby straight jacketing management’s ability to reduce costs and increase efficiencies.

Companies began scrambling for cheap labor at first located in the U.S. and then abroad.  It wasn’t too long before American companies were planting their flags throughout the world and building new plants in order to escape the union stranglehold.  You can’t say this was the union’s fault alone because sooner or later the American wage base could never compete with wages abroad.  However unions could never seem to understand throughout this period of retraction that working with management rather than against it was the better strategy.  There are some very fundamental reasons unions were not capable of responding constructively to their obvious economic calamity and we will discuss them below.


Throughout its modern history dating from the 1930’s union leadership has been comprised of former bench workers with education levels rarely exceeding high school.  Union leaders reached the exalted positions of president, secretary-treasurer, business representative, etc. by a combination of political skill and more often just plain muscle.  During its early turbulent years for union leaders to obtain a higher education was not only worthless but it had the uncanny character of making one appear feckless.  Union leadership demeaned the professional class and used it only when absolutely necessary.  Lawyers, accountants, consultants were allowed into the union’s sanctum sanctorum only when its leadership believed it was necessary.  Strategy was left to those who won the prize of leadership.  The professionals were there only to clean up the mess.

Management is always described by the union leadership as greedy and uncaring and therefore has to be taught “lessons.”  Union leadership inveighs against the American economic system of capitalism characterizing it as one which isagainst workers and workers’ rights ignoring the fact that the very existence of modern unions was supported by an American Congress which passed the National Labor Relations Actof 1936 upon the insistence, among others, of the industrial leaders of the day.

The organizing tactics used in the 1930’s have never changed substantially to this very day.  The vituperation and invective used by union leadership in the 1930’s, ‘40’s and ‘50’s against management during its organizing campaigns are still used today and what is even more surprising believed in even more strongly.  Is it any wonder that union organizing has had little effect on increasing union membership?  In fact, union organizing efforts have been so unsuccessful that the AFL-CIO, central HQ of the union movement in the United States, has attempted through political lobbying to change the laws affecting union organizing through card check (gaining representative status only by counting signed cards) or shortening the period between submitting a petition for an election and the actual date of the election.  This shortening of the campaign period provides management with less time to have an influence on the election’s outcome.


Though, throughout its modern history in the United States, private sector unions have always contained a streak of Marxist ideology they are not inherently Marxist.  In fact one could cogently argue that unions are inherently part of the capitalist system since they are the logical outgrowth of the invisible hand of competition between labor and capital.  It was Abraham Lincoln who recognized in his message to Congress on December 3, 1861 that, “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital.  Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed.”  Lincoln’s statement is pure Americana and it has been believed and acted upon by Congresses and Presidents throughout America’s history.  This being said union leadership, especially after the 1930’s, unlearned in American history and its ideologies had a tendency to adopt a more Marxist view of the struggle between its membership and management.  It is this abject failure of union leadership in understanding labor’s roots in the American experiment that has resulted in today’s anemic and dying union movement.  Moreover, it has allowed unions to become enmeshed in ideologies alien to its main purposes: higher wages, better benefits and workers becoming more productive.

What does the support of “gay rights”, “pro-choice”, “income re-distribution”, “immigration”, “Occupy Wall Street” and its companion “the 1%” have to do with wages, benefits and workers’ productivity? Nothing.  Yet, today’s private sector unions join the elite chattering classes, who have little respect for the working man and woman.  In fact, none of these highly educated, well paid elites would ever join a union or have their children join one.  Yet the “useful idiots” of the union leadership, as Lenin, if alive, would describe them today, join with enthusiasm the ideologies of the left without realizing that by doing so they alienate the general public which generally supports union goals and revel in their achievements.  However, Americans are confused as to why private sector unions are on the street supporting causes that are not relevant to their inherent goals.

It is this phenomenon which is more symptomatic of private sector unions today and their failure as an American institution than its underlying reason.  The fact is that private sector unions are now and always have been political entities rather that corporate.  It is this defect which leads to the typical aspects of politics: demagoguery, self-dealing corruption and an uninterested and unprepared electorate.  Seeing little change in this phenomenon the future of private sector unions, notwithstanding their great contributions to the American worker in the last 70 years, looks dark.

A final note:  Recently the members of the International Association of Machinists at Boeing voted against their leadership to accept a management proposal which would deleteriously affect their pensions and other benefits but keep the production of the 777X airliner in Seattle, WA.  This was an historic vote since it represented, perhaps for the first time, a private sector union election in which private sector union members voted for their economic future and not for some irrelevant ideology promoted by their leadership.  The next step is getting rid of their procrustean leadership.  Here’s hoping.