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What, If Anything, Can Labor Do to Rejuvenate Itself and Improve Worker Well-being in an Era of Inequality and Crisis-driven Austerity?


  • Freeman, Richard Barry


The economic position of workers has weakened in much of the advanced world. Over the past 30–40 years the share of national income going to labor has fallen. Labor earnings have become more unequally distributed. The proportion of workers in trade unions has trended downward, accompanied in some countries with commensurate declines in collective bargaining coverage. Union influence on the direction of the economy has diminished even in countries where firms and unions negotiate wage and working conditions for most employees and where left-oriented parties are in government. Increases in government deficits and debt resulting from the Great Recession have induced many governments to introduce austerity policies that are likely to perpetuate high joblessness and inequality into the foreseeable future. Finance's speculative excesses fed market capitalism but much of the costs of the implosion of finance and ensuing Great Recession will fall on labor into the foreseeable future. There is no easy answer to the title question. As the phrase “if anything†indicates, it is unclear whether labor can rejuvenate itself and pressure societies to restore full employment and raise living standards in the face of inequality and pressures for austerity programs. Differences in the labor relations systems among countries, in levels of inequality, in the importance of money in politics, and in the post Great Recession state of economies will undoubtedly produce different responses across countries and labor movements. In this paper I examine the situation in the US, where the ability of trade unions to represent labor's interest has declined more than in any other major economy. Collective bargaining in the US is co-terminus with union density. For over half a century union density has fallen in the private sector. In 2012 6.6% of private sector workers were union members (US BLS, 2013, table 3) – below the 1900 level when total density, then based almost entirely on private sector workers, was 6.8% (Freeman, 1998, p 291). In the 2000s unions gained so few members in National Labor Relations Board representation elections or in other ways that the anti-unionists’ once quixotic dream of a union-free labor market has become a reality in the private sector. American labor law and custom makes it difficult for workers and firms to substitute other forms of workplace labor activity for collective bargaining. The law forbids employer-initiated works councils. There are no mechanisms for extending collective contracts beyond the firm and local unions who negotiate and sign a contract. Employer associations are more interested in undermining collective bargaining than in discussing labor issues with the AFL-CIO or some other union federation. Unionism and collective bargaining have followed a different path in the public sector. Union density increased from the 1960s to the 2000s when about 37% of employees were union members, including teachers, police, firefighters, university professors, graduate student teaching assistants, as well as bus drivers, clerical workers, and so on.1 When recession-induced budget crises hit cities and states in the late 2000s, however, opponents of unions attacked public sector bargaining as a contributing factor to the deficits. In the US federal system, state law governs state and local government collective bargaining. Some states encourage public sector collective bargaining. Other states, largely in the South, make it illegal for public sector employers to bargain with unions. Following the 2008 elections, Republican-dominated legislatures in several states that had encouraged collective bargaining passed bills to restrict bargaining, outlaw dues checkoffs/agency fees (which provide a funding stream to unions), and limit union political activities. Wisconsin, which had pioneered laws favorable to public sector bargaining, added provisions to its budget bill that effectively eliminated collective bargaining for all state and local workers except police and fire. Ohio enacted legislation of a similar kind that targeted all state and local employees including police and fire. Opponents of the Wisconsin legislation forced the state's governor into a recall election but failed to turn him out of office or reverse the legislative decision. Opponents of the Ohio legislation overturned their law in a referendum (Freeman and Han, 2012), which seemed to stem the anti-union movement. But in 2012 the Republican dominated legislature in historically pro-union Michigan passed a bill to weaken unions there. At this writing anti-union groups have bills pending in the legislatures of many other states. Unions have circled their wagons to defend the one part of the labor market where they still hold considerable sway. The experience of the US is extreme but nonetheless informative for other advanced countries where crisis-driven austerity and increased inequality weaken union ability to represent workers and may embolden groups opposed to collective action, welfare state protections of workers and the like to follow the lead of their US counterparts. The failure of US unions to develop alternatives to collective bargaining to advance worker interests as union density fell is a “canary in the mine†warning to labor elsewhere. The new efforts by US labor activists, social entrepreneurs, some unions, and in 2013 the AFL-CIO itself to mobilize citizens to defend workers’ interests without collective bargaining directs attention to innovative ways for labor to develop countervailing power and press for full employment and rising living standards for all. The paper is divided into three sections. Section one reviews the decline in labor as a force determining outcomes in modern capitalism, with particular attention to the collapse of the firm-based collective bargaining model in the US. Section two highlights the need for a strong labor movement to help reform the finance-dominated model of capitalism that underlies the implosion of Wall Street and ensuing economic crisis. Section three examines the ways that labor activists, social entrepreneurs, and unions are developing ways to rejuvenate labor power and improve labor conditions absent collective bargaining. There is a brief conclusion.

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  • Freeman, Richard Barry, 2013. "What, If Anything, Can Labor Do to Rejuvenate Itself and Improve Worker Well-being in an Era of Inequality and Crisis-driven Austerity?," Scholarly Articles 13047660, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  • Handle: RePEc:hrv:faseco:13047660

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Richard B. Freeman & M. Marit Rehavi, 2009. "Helping Workers Online and Offline: Innovations in Union and Worker Organization Using the Internet," NBER Chapters,in: Studies of Labor Market Intermediation, pages 273-306 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Richard B. Freeman, 1998. "Spurts in Union Growth: Defining Moments and Social Processes," NBER Chapters,in: The Defining Moment: The Great Depression and the American Economy in the Twentieth Century, pages 265-296 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    1. What, If Anything, Can Labor Do to Rejuvenate Itself and Improve Worker Well-being in an Era of Inequality and Crisis-driven Austerity?
      by maximorossi in NEP-LTV blog on 2014-11-12 18:31:19

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