The Decline of Union Power

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When the Industrial Revolution swept the United States up in a flurry of new innovations and employment opportunities, no regulations existed yet to govern how employees were treated in the factories or mines but organized labor unions began popping up across the country in order to protect these unrepresented working class citizens.

However, the according to the U.S. Department of State, "the changing conditions of the 1980s and 1990s undermined the position of organized labor, which now represented a shrinking share of the workforce." Between 1945 and 1998, union membership fell from just over one-third of the workforce to 13.9 percent.

Still, powerful union contributions to political campaigns and members' voter-turnout efforts have kept union's interests represented in government to this day. This has recently, however, been mitigated by legislation allowing workers to withhold the portion of their union dues used to oppose or support political candidates.

Competition and the Need to Continue Operations

Corporations began shutting down work unions' resistance movements around the late 1970s when international and domestic competition drove the need to continue operations in order to survive in the cutthroat marketplace that was developing in the 1980s.

Automation also played a key role in breaking up union efforts by developing labor-saving automated processes including state of the art machinery, replacing the role of swathes of workers at every factory. Unions still fought back though, with limited success, demanding guaranteed annual incomes, shorter workweeks with shared hours, and free retraining to take on new roles associated with the upkeep of machinery.

Strikes have also notably declined in the 1980s and '90s, especially after President Ronald Reagan fired Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers who issued an illegal strike. Corporations have since been more willing to hire strikebreakers when unions walk out, too.

A Shift in Workforce and Declining Memberships

With the rise of automation and the decline of strike success and means for employees to express their demands effectively, the workforce of the United States shifted to a service industry focus, which has traditionally been a sector unions have been weaker in recruiting and retaining members from.

According to the U.S. Department of State, "Women, young people, temporary and part-time workers — all less receptive to union membership — hold a large proportion of the new jobs created in recent years. And much American industry has migrated to the southern and western parts of the United States, regions that have a weaker union tradition than do the northern or the eastern regions."

Negative publicity about corruption within high-ranking union members has also sullied their reputation and resulted in lower labor involved in their membership. Young workers, perhaps due to a perceived entitlement to the past victories of labor unions for better working conditions and benefits, have also shied away from joining unions.

The biggest reason these unions have seen a decline in membership, though, may be due to the strength of the economy in the late 1990s and again from 2011 through 2017. Just between October and November 1999 alone, the unemployment rate fell 4.1 percent, meaning an abundance of jobs made people feel like workers no longer needed unions to maintain their jobs.

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Your Citation
Moffatt, Mike. "The Decline of Union Power." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Moffatt, Mike. (2020, August 27). The Decline of Union Power. Retrieved from Moffatt, Mike. "The Decline of Union Power." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).