LBO News from Doug Henwood

Fresh audio product: British rot and the fight for abortion rights 50 years ago

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

January 26, 2023 Josh White, author of Goodbye United Kingdomon that country’s trajectory of decline • Felicia Kornbluh, author of A Woman’s Life Is a Human Lifetalks about the fight for abortion rights in the late 60s and early 70s, and how it must be part of a larger struggle for reproductive justice

More on union density

A couple of follow-up points to Thursday’s post on falling union density.

manufacturing leads the way down

Headline figures on private sector union density (the share of the employed belonging to unions) obscure an important fact: the downtrend is largely a story of the decline in manufacturing. Over four-fifths—88% to be precise—of the fall in the number of unionized workers since 1983 is accounted for by the loss of union jobs in manufacturing. Since 2000, it’s 84%. The history is graphed below.

Union density manuf'g and non

The raw numbers are stunning. From 1983 to 2022, private employment grew by 49.1 million, but union membership fell by 4.7 million. Of that 4.7 million decline, 4.2 million were in manufacturing. Over the same period, private sector employment outside manufacturing grew by 53.6 million, and union membership there  declined by 546,000. 

If union density is ever going to turn around, it’s going to have to happen in services. Manufacturing has shrunk from 27% of private employment in 1983 to 12% today. It’s subject to harsh international competition and easily offshored (though maybe not as easily as in pre-covid times). Services are largely shielded from international competition and are not as easily moved. Of course, it’s a lot easier for me to type those words than it is to make it happen.

union advantage

There’s a good reason employers hate unions: they make employment more secure and raise wages. On the security issue, to take one example, as I noted in Thursday’s post, a smaller share of union workers were laid off in the early covid days than nonunion workers. More generally, it’s much harder for bosses to fire unionized workers than nonunionized ones on a whim (and under the doctrine of at-will employment, which prevails in most states, bosses can indeed fire workers on a whim).

And the evidence on pay is strong: weekly earnings for the average union worker are 18% higher than the nonunion worker. As the graph below shows, union workers enjoy a premium for all major demographic groups except Asian men (almost certainly a function of their disproportionate presence in tech, a high-wage, low-union sector).

Wage by demo & union status 2022 

Unions also raise the wages of traditionally discriminated-against workers. For example, nonunionized women working full time have a weekly wage 82% that of nonunionized men; for the unionized, the ratio rises to 90%. (These comparisons are for full-time workers. Since more women than men work part-time, this is not a comprehensive portrait of the gender gap. Nonunionized black women have a weekly wage 70% that of white men; a union raises that to 74%. For black men, the numbers are 77% and 84%. And so on, as in the graph below. The only exceptions to the rule are Asian men and women (though unions do raise pay for Asian women). 

Wage gaps & union status 2022

Yes, there are many things wrong with American unions. But they still do a lot for their members, and everyone should have one.

Data notes 1) Nonmanufacturing is overwhelmingly services, but it also includes mining and construction, which are classified as goods-producing. Together they account for less than 7% of private employment. Though it was never huge, mining’s share of private employment has declined a lot over the decades, from 1.5% in 1983 to 0.5% last year. Construction’s share, however, has been steady, at just under 6% of private employment. 2) Not included in these union density numbers: workers who are not members but are nonetheless “represented by” unions, meaning they’re covered by a union contract even though they’re not paying dues. They’d add about 10–12% to the union count but adding them wouldn’t change the fundamental story. One might consider them free-riders. 3) BLS union data by industry begins in 2000. In 2002, there was a change in the official industrial classification scheme that makes earlier data not strictly comparable to later. While this matters to purists, the break is barely visible in the data and doesn’t at all change the long-term picture. 4) The BLS doesn’t publish the pre-2000 data on its website; the unpublished history was generously furnished by BLS staff.


Fresh audio product: Afghanistan and port ecology

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

January 19, 2023 Matthieu Aikins, author of this article (among many), on the situation in Afghanistan with the US gone and the Taliban in control • Christina Dunbar-Hester, author of Oil Beach, on the ecology of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach

Union density keeps falling

As it has for thirty-seven of the last fifty years, the share of the workforce belonging to a union, aka union density, fell in 2022. It’s risen in only four years in that span; it was unchanged in nine. The grim history, reported this morning by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is graphed below.

Union density history 2022

In 2022, 10.1% of the employed belonged to a union, down from 10.3% the previous year. The decline was led by the public sector, where density fell from 33.9% to 33.1%, a decline of 0.8; the private sector was down a mere 0.1, to 6.0% (an all-time low in a history going back to 1900).

As the graph shows, private sector density has been in a long decline from its 1951 (!) peak of 34.7%. Public sector unions had a good run from 1973 to 1994, when they peaked at 38.7%. But public sector density drifted lower over the next decade and a half, a decline that accelerated markedly after then-Wisconsin governor Scott Walker launched his war on public sector unions in 2011.

Unionization rates vary widely by state, from over 20% in Hawaii and New York to under 3% in North and South Carolina. The graph below breaks the 2022 density numbers into quartiles. Note that the highest rates are in the Northeast, upper Midwest, and on the Pacific Coast; the lowest are in the South, particularly the old Confederacy. The unweighted average of the former Confederate states is 4.4%; for the non-Confederate states, 10.8%.

Union density map 2022

Variations aside, most states have seen declines since 2019 (33, counting DC as a state) and almost all have since 2000 (47 of them). Here are graphs of the top and bottom ten over each period.

Change in union density by state, 2000 and 2019 to 2022

Many books have been written explaining the reasons behind this dismal history, and while this is no place to go into detail, I’ll list a few prominent reasons: the relentless hostility of employers (going back to the 19th century, when Pinkertons were hired to shoot strikers), extremely union-unfriendly labor law, and a pervasive consciousness of self-reliance among the masses—though unions have been polling very well lately, with 71% of those surveyed by Gallup approving, up from 48% in 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession. (Crises often don’t encourage militancy.) But the other obstacles, employer hostility and a miserable legal environment, make it very hard to translate approval into actual union membership.

I’ll have more to say in the coming days, but for now I’ll conclude this the same way I have for the last several years:

There are a lot of things wrong with American unions. Most organize poorly, if at all. Politically they function mainly as ATMs and free labor pools for the Democratic party without getting much in return. But there’s no way to end the 40-year war on the US working class without getting union membership up.

Note on sources: The public sector data for 1973–1999 comes from Barry Hirsch and David Macpherson. Private sector data for 1900–1964 comes from Leo Troy and David Sheflin’s Union SourcebookLater data is from the BLS.

Fresh audio product: the right speaks

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

January 12, 2023 Emily Jashinsky of The Federalist on the GOP: the meaning of the speaker fight, and what is the base of the Freedom Caucus anyway? • Sohrab Ahmari, co-founder of Compact Magazine, offers a left–right hybrid

Encore audio product

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

December 29, 2022 historian David Roediger, author of The Sinking Middle Class, on the uses of that term in US politics • economist Ellora Derenoncourt, co-author of this paper, on the US racial wealth gap, 1860–2020 [holiday-season encore presentation of interviews first broadcast in June]

fresh audio product: factions on the right, AI hype

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

December 22, 2022 Kathryn Joyce on the far right and its internal battles • Edward Ongweso Jr on tech, AI, and Luddism

Fresh audio product: class conflict on the rails and in the university

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

December 15, 2022 Intercept reporter Ryan Grim, author of this article, on the fight between workers and bosses in the rail industry • economist Sanjay Reddy on the fight between adjuncts and bosses in the neoliberal university

Fresh audio product: fitness in America, weak bourgeoisie in Italy

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

December 8, 2022 Natalia Petrzela, author of Fit Nationon the history of physical culture in the US • Paolo Gerbaudo on the weakness of the Italian bourgeoisie

Fresh audio product: right-wing school politics and black Communist women

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

December 1, 2022 Jennifer Berkshire on the latest version of right-wing school politics (since the last versions haven’t been working for them) • Jodi Dean, co-editor (along with Charisse Burden-Stelly) of Organize, Fight, Win, a collection of black Communist women’s writings from the late 1920s into the early 1950s

Fresh audio product: COP27 climate conference, masculinity and militarism

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

November 24, 2022  Tina Gerhardt on the COP27 climate conference, and Lyle Jeremy Rubin, author of Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Bodyon masculinity, the Marines, and imperial violence

Fresh audio product: politics after the elections, racism vs. social democracy

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

November 17, 2022 Jodi Dean on the political landscape in the wake of last week’s election • Tobias Hübinette, author of this article, on the role of immigration in the backlash against Swedish social democracy

Fresh audio product: Israel moves further right, Iran’s tripartite structure, Ontario labor upsurge

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

November 10, 2022 Joel Schalit on the return of Bibi Netanyahu in Israel, now in coalition with the religious right • Mohammad Salemy on the tripartite structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran • Megan Kinch, about a labor upsurge in Ontario

fresh audio product: Brazil and Iran

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

November 3, 2022 political economist Alfredo Saad-Filho on the Brazilian elections • Mina Khani and Mohammad Salemy on the women-led uprising in Iran

Fresh audio product: why are teens so troubled?, the state of the new young left

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

October 27, 2022 Jamieson Webster, author of this article, examines what severe psychological distress among adolescents is telling us about American society • Raina Lipsitz, author of The Rise of a New Left, looks at the history, personnel, and status of today’s radicalism

%d bloggers like this: