What is the Future of the Labor Movement?

The numbers are clear. Labor union membership has seen a precipitous decline in recent years and the prevailing wisdom is that it may never recover from a peak in the 1950s where roughly 35 percent of the workforce was unionized. Still, even with its waning membership, labor unions continue to exert influence driving work and labor policy.

And in the age of a shared economy (or “gig economy,” described by critics) and increased automation, it’s possible employer-employee tensions may spark greater demand and relevancy for unions.

But is this enough to save labor unions? To help answer these questions, Opportunity Lives sat down with American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Aparna Mathur, a leading expert in trade and union policy, to discuss the future of the U.S. labor movement.

OL: Many Americans are free from work on Labor Day, but few know the history of a holiday largely started by labor unions hoping to bring attention to better pay and higher safety standards in the workforce. Is this important and are we indebted to the labor movement in some ways for the work standards we have in place?

AM: Yes, labor unions have certainly contributed to higher work standards that we have, but some of that is also a result of increased competition in the workforce. In other words, as workers have become more educated and skilled, employees are negotiating more directly with employers. As a result, the U.S. has adopted many safety standards and enacted minimum wage laws and other safeguards. Today, many labor unions are primarily concerned with bargaining for better wages. But more important than wages is a good paying job, and for many employees more are realizing that labor unions cannot necessarily provide this service.

OL: Labor unions are in decline. There are a number of theories out there. Do you subscribe to one or a few to explain why union membership is at an all time-low?

AM: Globalization is certainly a factor, as is [automation]. But what’s also happening is that the private sector has instituted higher work standards and better compensation for workers naturally as workers are less likely to accept poor working conditions. This is why union membership is in decline. In states where workers have the option of joining, many are declining.

OL: What do you make of the fact that more Latinos are joining labor unions? And do you think that labor unions could seize on the demographic changes happening in our country to grow their membership?

AM: What’s funny is that there was a time when labor unions were completely against immigration because it “protected the American worker.” But now labor unions are reaching out to immigrants and possibly illegal immigrants to grow their membership. But to me, this is a last ditch effort to stay relevant.

Still, it’s true that many [undocumented] immigrant workers do need protection to secure their [worker] rights, but I don’t think the answer to that is unionization. The more important priority is figuring out a way to legalize them and incorporate them into the workforce.

OL: As an alternative to unionization, you have written about expanding paid apprenticeships for youths, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for low income workers and wage subsidy programs for displaced workers. Can you explain to our readers how this could help?

AM: The EITC has been very successful in getting people into the labor market. There is ample research out there that shows that this program works because it supplements low-income workers with additional income as long as they are in the labor market. This in turn, boosts the workforce.

Apprenticeships, like the Carolina Apprenticeship Program allow younger workers to receive critical job training skills for future employment opportunities. By partnering with local colleges, [participating] employers receive a tax credit and apprenticeship graduates avoid graduating with a ton of outstanding debt. They are receiving on the job training with the skills that prospective employers really need. Research has also shown that if you secure a job early in your career, it also increases the chances that you are going to move up the socioeconomic ladder.

 Israel Ortega is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter: @IzzyOrtega