Monday, February 11, 2013

What do Union Density Figures Actually Mean?

What do union density statistics actually mean? To what extent can we draw sweeping conclusions about our present political period from them?

Union density measures the percentage of the work force that is unionized. Recently, new figures came out which indicate that union density in the United States recently reached a 95-year low point. It would be easy to hastily conclude from this (admittedly depressing) statistic that things are getting progressively worse for the workers movement in the US.

As Chris Maisano at Jacobin has convincingly argued, however, that would be a grave mistake. Increasing union density does not necessarily translate into increasing workers power, and declining union membership does not entail a one-to-one decline in workers power. After all, much depends upon the extent to which rank-and-file workers are organized and activated within the union, among other factors (both subjective and objective).

Consider the example of the Chicago Teachers Union. The CTU has had tens of thousands of members for decades. But only recently has the union been transformed by its members into a rank-and-file-led vehicle that can wield the strike weapon to defend public education. In fact, during the last 10 years, the city of Chicago has closed a number of schools and I would wager that the CTU’s membership declined as a result. But in this case, figures about declining membership hardly mean that the CTU was on the road to decline, veering ever closer to disaster. The result is this: despite the fact that union density in Chicago public education fallen over the last 10 years, the prospect today for a upsurge in rank-and-file-led, social movement unionism among teachers is favorable.

Or, consider an example that Maisano discusses in his piece, namely the fact that union density in France is only 8%---much lower than in the United States. Despite this fact, the French workers movement is in many ways ahead of its American counterpart. The French left has greater implantation in the trade union movement and workers there are often more likely to employ militant tactics, disruptive forms of protest, and so on. But you wouldn’t necessarily know this from keeping tabs on union density figures.

Consider another of Maisano's examples: New York State, which has extremely high union density figures---23% overall and more than 70% in the public sector. Despite these impressive figures, public sector workers have been forced by Gov. Cuomo (D) to accept concession after concession. This should lead us to ask: what will it take to transform these unions into organs of struggle for their workers and what role can we play in making that a reality? I fail to see how a schematic narrative about terminal decline---grounded on a faulty interpretation of the significance of union density figures---gives us any traction here. A far more fruitful approach would be to look at what militant teachers in the CTU did and try to generalize lessons for the left and for the labor movement writ large.

One more example. As Steve Early discusses in his excellent book Civil Wars in US Labor (Haymarket Books: 2011), SEIU added thousands upon thousands of members in the 1990s and early 2000’s. Now you might think that this entailed a general upswing in workers power and class consciousness. You’d be wrong. As Early shows in the book, much of that growth in union density was built on an edifice top-down business-unionism and aggressive pro-Democrat electioneering.

Yet, in spite of declining union density because of public sector layoffs, the prospects today for a working-class fightback are far greater than they were during the early 2000’s. Again, we see that the meaning of union density statistics is hardly as obvious as some leftists would have us believe. The real problems are more complex and abstract hand-wringing about declining union membership does little more than paper over them and encourage an unjustifiable pessimism about what's possible today.

Without struggle the labor movement withers on the vine. There are no irreversible gains in the class struggle. When militant action from below declines, so does the energy that enables the labor movement to tread water (let alone advance forward). Conditions today are making workers more and more open to militant, disruptive tactics (such as illegal strikes and sit-downs and all the rest) as well as radical politics. That won't erase overnight the lacerations of 40 years of class war from above. But it's reason to think that there is more possibility today for working class struggle than there has been in decades. 


Unknown said...

The French example is misleading, because in France - like other European countries, though to a greater extent - workers can be covered by union contracts without being union members (and indeed, without having any union presence in their workplace).

French unions have historically been smaller and more fractured than in most other parts of Western Europe - sharply divided along political/ideological lines, they have never been centralized in the same way as, say, Swedish or German unions, and they have suffered from the absence of anything equivalent to the closed shop. In practice, it is often more active workers, or workers in traditionally very well organized workplaces that join French unions. In fact, the system was set up as it was in large part to ensure that the Communist-led union organizations (the CGT) never gained too much leverage over production.

But that doesn't mean most French workers are left outside of collective bargaining agreements: in reality, the widespread use of "extension" mechanisms ensures that most French workers are still covered by the terms of sector or industry-level collective bargaining agreements. As a result, the gap between union density (about 8%, as you say) and union coverage rates (about 90%) is the highest in the region.

More generally, I would say, there's just no way around the fact that labor organizations of all sorts, straight across the advanced capitalist world, have gotten much weaker in the past few decades - and that's been tied in a drop in workers' capacity to fight for consistent and egalitarian pay increases, etc. That trend has been manifested in all sorts of ways: increasing wage inequality, a sharp fall in the rage of wage growth relative to productivity gains, and a decline in labor's share of national income; a sharp fall in strike numbers; the inability of labor organizations to prevent employers from abandoning centralized wage negotiations in search of concessionary local agreements, etc. But union density - which has gone down basically everywhere, including in the past decade and half in Scandinavia - is as good a proxy as any.

The notion that this decline is terminal is of course silly. But it presents some significant political challenges - and it's worth it for us to think about what those are, without handringing. Our class has taken it on the chin for sure...

Jonah said...

Sorry, that was me (Jonah).

One more thing. It's interesting to note that even before the onset of the current global economic meltdown, the incidence of political general strikes had gone way up in W. Europe during the last thirty years in comparison to the post-War period.

That's not cause union federations got more radical - these were mostly set-piece, one or two day affairs. Rather it's because they were trying to compensate for their increasing weakness in the workplace by exerting some kind of political muscle, without doing anything too risky. Obviously, these maneuvers failed to stem the tide of labor's decline...

t said...

Point taken re: France---I learned a great deal that I didn't know from your comments about the situation there. I should also mention that I got a lot out of your last SW article on France I look forward to another at some point that takes stock of what's happening with the NPA, but that's another story...

That said, I stand by my claim that union density figures, though important, are far more complex than they are being made out to be by the media and many leftists right now. I'm not denying that our class is taking it on the chin. It's just that I detest obsession with density figures which leave the underlying dynamics---many of which you discuss in your remarks about France---largely unexamined. Moreover, as I'm sure you'd agree, "good" density figures don't necessarily translate to a strong workers movement---as the New York example and many W. European countries make clear.

In short, I don't mean to deny the very real challenges the working class faces right now... it's just that I want to be sure we're clear about what those challenges are. Abstract hand-wringing about density muddies the waters and makes it hard to see why the labor movement has its back against the wall and what we can do to change that. Anyway, I'm seeing a lot of that at the moment, hence the rant in the blog post. Maybe I'm "bending the stick" too far in the other direction. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.