Returning to the Picket Line: The Future of the American Labor Movement

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
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The U.S labor movement has seen an exceptional decline for half a century; but an uptick in union strikes and membership could point to a revival in worker’s rights organizing. The number of workers involved in strikes across various industries has nearly tripled since 2022 from 123,000 participants to 362,000. It is evident that the ever increasing income inequality gap has had disastrous consequences on workers across the country, and many have decided it is time for change. 

Development and Height of U.S. Labor Movement:

The labor movement in the United States has its roots in the post-revolutionary war period as the newly independent nation began industrializing. As a result of large waves of immigration and advances in technology and transportation, urban areas began to develop rapidly. It was in these new cities that the seeds for the early U.S labor movement were sown. 

The foundations of American manufacturing and industry was characterized by abysmal working conditions and extremely poor quality of life for workers, many of whom were women, children, and immigrants. In 1833, the first labor union was formed in New York City to address the extreme inequality. After over a century of organizing, the U.S. labor movement soon worked its way from consisting of fringe radical organizations to gaining mainstream influence and recognition. 

After the Civil War, new enterprises and markets began to emerge and there was a high demand for labor. Large populations of immigrants came to the country in search of work and economic stability, instead finding themselves overworked and underpaid by unchecked industry bosses. By the late 19th century, worker organizations such as the Knights of Labor and the National Labor Union sprang up in response and began mobilizing workers in strikes and boycotts.

In 1935 New York Senator Robert F. Wagner introduced the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the creation of the National Labor Relations Board, establishing the legal right to collectively bargain with employers through unions and labor organizing. By 1953, the percentage of unionized workers grew to 42% in manufacturing,  65% in mining, 84% in construction, and 80% in transportation. 

Union Decline and Socio-Economic Inequality:

 In 1947, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, also known as the Labor Management Relations Act which limited the NLRA by creating right-to-work laws, restricting strike/boycott capabilities, and undermining union influence. This marked the beginning of a long legal, political, and economic attack on labor organizing.

Consequently, since the late 1950s, union density (the proportion of the labor force in unions) has continually fallen. The decline was further accelerated in the 1980s under the overtly anti-union policies of President Ronald Reagan. by 1989, the percentage unionized in particular sectors had dropped to 22% in manufacturing, 18% in mining, 22% in construction, and 30% in transportation

As a result, workers all around the country are facing inadequate working conditions and a lack of compensation among other issues. A study by Princeton economist Henry Faber examines the relationship between unions and household incomes and finds strong correlations between high union density in the 1930s to late 1940s and lower inequality across various measures. In the decades since their peak, union decline has also corresponded with a widening gap of income distribution (see Figure 1 and Figure 2). The rising Gini Coefficient as seen in Figure 2 demonstrates an increase in the measure of inequality as calculated by income distribution data. 

Figure 1: Union Density in the United States, 1880-2018


Source: Ryan Nunn, Jimmy O’Donnell and Jay Shambaugh (2019) https://www.hamiltonproject.org/assets/files/UnionsEA_Web_8.19.pdf

Figure 2: Money Income Gini Index and Real Household Income, 1993- 2022
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (2023) https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2023/09/income-inequality.html#:~:text=The%20ratio%20of%20the%2090th,a%206.7%25%20decrease%20from%202021

There are many reasons for the decades-long decline in union power in the U.S. including aggressive limitations on union activity from the post-Wagner courts, failures in union organizing/leadership and employer resistance.

Present U.S Labor Activity:

While existing legal and socioeconomic barriers continue to impede the power of unions, workers across industries and states are taking labor action through strikes and collective bargaining. Johnnie Kallas, project director of Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker, reports that in 2023, over 457,000 workers participated in 315 strikes, the highest since 1986 (See Figure 3). Work Stoppages occurred across industries, primarily in accommodation/food services, education, transportation/warehousing, information, manufacturing, and health care/social assistance. 

Figure 3: Annual Number of Major Work Stoppages, 1981-2018

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (2019) https://www.bls.gov/news.release/archives/wkstp_02082019.pdf 

Strikes organized by unions such as the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and United Auto Workers (UAW), provide insight into the future of the American labor movements through both their successes and continued fight for fair working practices. Starting May 2, 2023, the WGA, representing 11,500 screenwriters, held a 148-day strike as part of a series of Hollywood labor disputes. Upon reaching an agreement with studios, the WGA put in place a Minimum Basic Agreement that instituted a minimum wage for television and film writers, residuals from streaming services, limits on the use of artificial intelligence, and more. 

On September 15, 2023, United Auto Workers began a strike against Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis that has since become the longest auto strike in 25 years. As of October 30, UAW has released a tentative agreement with the three companies that union members are currently in the process of voting on. The agreement includes a 25% pay increase for all workers, 10% annual company contributions to 401(k) plans, and $5,000 ratification bonuses.

The increase in worker activism in the past few years underscores the growing demand for improved workers’ rights and the need to address income inequality. Despite ongoing legal and socio-economic obstacles, workers are taking action, with unions like the Writers Guild of America and United Auto Workers leading the charge, signaling a potential turning point in the American labor movement’s history. 

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This article was edited by Skylar Harris