In many places, the American labour movement has all but disappeared. A number of causes play a role. Unions have largely failed to organise the emerging services sector. Businesses have become ever more aggressive. In 1950, 0.5% of workers who tried to organise were fired; in the 1990s, this had risen to almost 5%. The government does little to prevent the repression used by employers to suppress worker rights.
In America, it’s easy to show the impact of unions, since the results of collective negotiations are not automatically extended to an entire industry. In cities were most class A hotels are organised, like New York and San Francisco; housekeepers earn over 15 euros per hour. In cities were about half are organised, like Los Angeles, it’s about 11.50. In cities were unions have no position in hotels, they earn little more than the minimum wage of about 5.50 euros.
As unions grow weaker, the position of workers also grows weaker, and inequality grows. The growing wealth at the top comes at the expense of wages, which amount to an ever-smaller share of national income, even though the productivity of workers rises.
As an emancipation movement, unions are an important countervailing power to the power of corporations, also in politics. The consequences are not sufficiently appreciated:
By thinking the labour question had been settled during the decades of post-war prosperity, and then by not thinking about the labour question at all, liberals ceased to address the issue of power: the economic and political power that capitalism concentrates at the top when unions are weak and regulations watered down.
What happens in America can’t simply be projected onto Europe. Here, labour relations are highly institutionalised. As a result, the consequences of changing relations of power don’t immediately show. This doesn’t mean that those changes aren’t taking place. Here, too, the left needs to ask itself: what happens if the union movement disappears.
Find Meyerson’s analysis here. Here he asks 4 labour leaders what should be done.