I say “unsurprisingly” because private-sector unions are close to extinct. In the 1950s, more than one in three private-sector workers belonged to a union; today, unionization is down to 6 percent of the private-sector workforce, which is lower than it was a century ago, before the modern labor movement took off. And the rate continues to drop.
Even before getting my small taste of what working-class Americans are experiencing in horse doctors’ doses, I had come to see the decline of unions as one of the country’s most pressing problems—and at least as much a social and political problem as an economic one. Old-style, mid-20th-century industrial unions had their flaws, unquestionably. But when unions work as they should, they serve important social functions. They can smooth the jagged edges of globalization by giving workers bargaining power. They are associated with lower income inequality, as the accompanying graph shows. Perhaps most important, they offer workers a way to be heard. “Unions provide a mediating function,” Matthew Dimick, a labor-law expert at suny Buffalo’s law school, told me. “Their social-capital function creates ties that reduce anomie and the sense of being abandoned and forgotten.” No other social institution, or at least none yet discovered, can serve that mediating function for workers.
All workers do not suffer equally from the decline of unions: In today’s fragmented, hypercompetitive, and globalized workplace, high-powered professionals enjoy more autonomy and respect than ever. Less educated workers, by contrast, have lost agency and, in many cases, dignity. Edward Luce of the Financial Times puts the problem well in his new book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism: “In survey after survey, the biggest employee complaint is being treated with a lack of respect. Whether they work in an Amazon warehouse, serve fast food, or sit in a … customer-service cubicle, they feel diminished by how they are treated.” That has implications not just for the well-being of workers, but for the health of capitalism and even of democracy.
In America, the modern conservative movement was founded on anticommunism and antiunionism. Senator Barry Goldwater (“Mr. Conservative”) built his career bashing unions. President Ronald Reagan, although a former union leader himself, made his bones by breaking the air-traffic controllers’ union. Just this past February, Republicans succeeded in their long push for a right-to-work law in Missouri. But the conservative war on unions is beginning to look like a Faustian bargain. If 2016 taught us anything, it was that miserable workers are angry voters, and angry voters are more than capable of lashing out against trade, immigration, free markets, and for that matter liberal democracy itself.
This is not to say the old style of American industrial unions will come back, or should. The mid-20th-century enterprise model, as it was called, relied on confrontational tactics to organize particular companies or factories. That may have succeeded in an era of oligopolistic, locally rooted corporations. However, in an era when even a slight increase in labor costs at a North Carolina factory sends jobs to China, organizing just a single company can boomerang against workers and management alike.