The decline of union power

What role can unions play in the race for the White House as union membership decreases dramatically in the US?

Thousands of US trade unionists have rallied in Philadelphia calling for a workers bill of rights. But are US politicians even listening and will the labour movement have any clout this November?

Our electoral system got polluted by too much cash …. We have a vicious cycle of economic and political power concentrated at the top … and that has a bad influence on Democrats and Republicans alike, because you almost can’t compete in a normal US election without tonnes and tonnes of cash. And union members are not going to bring the cash. We bring the bodies, we bring the power, we bring the energy and the grassroots mobilisation, but we can’t bring buckets of cash to the table, we are never going to.

– Thea Lee from the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations

This weekend’s rally showed that the trade union movement can still mobilise. Thousands turned out calling for improved employment rights.

But less than three months before the 2012 presidential election, the unions are arguably weaker than they have ever been.

Last year, there were large-scale protests in Wisconsin when Scott Walker, the Republican governor, tried to remove collective bargaining rights.

This culminated in a union-backed recall election – which Walker won. Many other states are now proposing similar legislation.

Union membership has declined dramatically and their influence on the Democratic leadership has waned despite their immense financial importance to the party.

Barack Obama, the US president, has failed to implement the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it easy for all workers to join a union.

Significantly, the trade unions are not sponsoring any events at next month’s Democratic National Convention in North Carolina, which is awash in corporate funding. 

The movement seems to be in the doldrums and the faltering economy and high unemployment rates have caused some trade unionists to call for a fundamental change of tactics.

“Workers who try to form a union today are met with a ferocious assault – illegal, legal, multi-million dollar, coercive, terrorising type situation …. There’s a reason why workers find it very difficult to join a union. It’s because the employers make it very difficult. And this comes right back to the doorstep of the Democrats.

– Chris Townsend from the United Electrical Workers Union

Many argue they should align with the Occupy Movement, which brought thousands of protestors to streets around the world.

However, so far, such outreach has been dismissed by many activists as an attempt to co-opt a movement for real change on behalf of a corporate-led Democratic Party.

So, is the US trade union movement in crisis and, if so, why? What is the role of trade unions in the presidential race? 

To answer these questions, Inside Story US 2012 is joined by guests: Thea Lee from the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations; Chris Townsend, a political action director for the United Electrical Workers Union; and Thomas Sugrue, a professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

“There’s nothing more important to our economy and this country than making sure we have a strong and growing middle class, so that anyone who is willing to work hard can get ahead. That doesn’t just mean having a job. It means having a good job that pays a decent wage. It means having a voice in your government, starting with access to the polls. It means having a say at work, including the fundamental right to collectively bargain. It means being able to send your kids to great schools and to keep your family healthy. That’s the way to grow our economy – by investing in the workers who made this country what it is today.”

Barack Obama, the US president


According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • US union membership has declined steadily in recent years
  • There were 14.8 million union members in the US in 2011
  • That is the lowest number in 70 years – accounting for less than 12 per cent of the workforce
  • The peak unionisation rate was 35 per cent and occurred during the mid-1950s
  • The bureau says that median weekly earnings for union members are significantly higher – $938 per week compared to $729 per week for non-union workers

In recent years, donations to Democrats from business-oriented political action committees (PACs) has outstripped donations from union PACs:

  • According to the Center for Responsive Politics, for every dollar Democrats got from union PACs in the year 2000  they got $1.25 from business PACs
  • By 2010, Democrats got $2.55 from business-PACs for every dollar they got from unions
  • Unions contributed about 40 per cent of all money Democrats received from PACs during the election of 2000
  • But in 2010, union donations made up just 24 per cent of Democrats’ PAC money