By Damon Silver, Senior Associate Unions 21, Visiting Professor of Practice, UCL | 4 min
In the United States today, less than 7% of the private sector workforce belongs to a union or is covered by collective bargaining in the workplace. When you include public sector workers, who are overwhelmingly unionised outside of the states of the old Confederacy, the total percentage of US workers who are in a union or covered by collective bargaining is under 11%, down from 35% in the early 1950’s.
And yet 77% of the American public when polled expresses support for unions—and similar percentages say they would like to be in a union at work.
It is not a crazy thing to ask the question, what if the European Union’s directive that member states should have a policy goal of 80% union density applied to the United States? Because the first thing that has to be said about that question is that it would bring the practice of labor relations in the U.S. more or less in line with the wishes of the American workforce.
But such a change would have extraordinary effects on the nature of the US economy, American society, American democracy, and the American labor movement itself. But it has happened before--the exponential growth of the labor movement in the 1930’s and the even more dramatic growth of the public sector labor movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s changed America’s economics and politics in those very different times and shine some light on what we could expect to happen if even more rapid growth happened in today’s America.
To begin with, the United States is by many measures the most economically unequal of the developed countries—the consequence of decades of wages not keeping pace with productivity growth, and the difference between the two being captured by the owners of capital. We could expect in an America with 80% union density a return to the postwar regime where wages and productivity moved together.
This would mean an end to outsize returns to investment capital and a long term reduction in economic inequality.
Ironically, high union density would likely reduce the number of hard fought strikes and organising campaigns of the kind we are currently seeing in the US auto industry and at the country’s largest employers like Amazon and Starbucks. At 80% union density both organising and bargaining would be a routine dynamic in the US labor market, and we can assume that with the option of silencing your workers taken off the employer table, the overall level of conflict associated with labor relations would diminish.
At the same time, 80% union density would lead to a political economy where the labor movement would both have the power and the necessity to be far more engaged in macro economic policy, and far more aware of the importance of productivity growth for its wage settlements. This type of trade union consciousness was typical of the world’s highest labor market density trade union movements in the post war era, including substantial parts of the postwar US labor movement. It is a consciousness of co- management of the national economy with employers, not a mentality of the powerless trying to extract whatever they can get from the powerful.
More broadly though 80% union density would have enormous consequences for American democracy. Trade unions would be broadly representative of the working class—a working class that is BOTH majority women and people of colour AND significantly but not predominantly Republican in political orientation. Both major political parties would have to engage with the labor movement and working peoples’ issues differently than they do today. If the postwar era in the US is any indicator, the Republican Party would likely embrace the right to organise and bargain even as it remained closer to business, and the trade union movement would become a much more central player in the Democratic Party, more like the role trade unions play in European progressive parties.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, 80% union density would profoundly strengthen American democracy by creating avenues of information, participation and power for the majority of working people—counteracting the long term trends of alienation and political inequality that have done so much to destabilize American democracy in the era of shrinking union density.
(opinions here are Damon’s alone and do not represent the views of any organisation or other person)