Monday, September 7, 2009

The Sad Decline of Unions

Today the Gallup Poll puts out its annual poll on labor unions. Alas, unions have suffered a sharp drop in popularity in the past year.

A year ago Gallup asked "do you approve or disapprove of labor unions," and 59 percent of Americans said they approved. Now, only 48 percent approve.

The 48% of Americans now approving of unions represents the first sub-50% approval since Gallup first asked the question in the 1930s. The previous low was 55%, found in both 1979 and 1981.

When unions emerged in the 19th century they were spontaneous groupings of working people joining together to generate genuine collective benefits. They flourished most often during inflationary periods when wages were declining. Apart from bargaining over wages, unions offered their members significant benefits such as health care and death payments. They were similar to the fraternal associations that also provided mutual aid to their members.

But then unions got involved in politics and they started supporting the welfare state. So unionism became a political movement rather than a social movement. Of course, if the government provides benefits, who needs the unions.

Today labor unions are the major prop supporting the Democratic Party. Their agenda is a political agenda, trying to game the system through changing the law on labor union certification, and providing "astroturf" to support the Obama administration's legislative agenda.

And, of course, the Obama administration has done a lot to help labor unions, most notably in the bailout of the auto companies, General Motors and Chrysler, that died in part because of union power.

All social institutions have their day, and inevitably decline. When workers get more prosperous and confident of their ability to compete in the job market, they get less inclined to want the protection, the solidarity, of a labor union. Then they only need them as a lobbying force, as in government worker unions.

But still the romance of labor continues, and we celebrate Labor Day each year,

We humans have other nostalgic notions, like the notion of the family farm. That notion costs us a bundle, too.

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