Unions play a very significant role in the United States: they affect the treatment of workers and many policy-making processes. Unions and big labour in the United States achieved their peak point in the 1940s and 1950s but started to decline continuously from the 1970s (Rosenfeld 2014, 3).
Many unions declined because many changes have occurred in three relevant fields of United States: economic, institutional, and politics. Thus, unions are not able to survive in the same context as before. Unions in the United States have experienced decline and are trying to find new ways to survive in the brand new environment. The decline of unions in the country’s history has four main effects upon today’s society.
First, income inequality increases because unions no longer equalise income. Second, racial inequality increases because unions no longer counteract it. Third, the number of immigrant union members declines because unions no longer play a significant role in assimilating immigrants.
Last but not least, people’s political power also decreases because unions no longer give lower-income Americans a political voice. However, activists have come out with three strategies: first, to build community-based unions in the society, second, to organise low-wage workers to battle for higher wages and third, to develop some innovations to create a better path for unions to develop.
The Lost Effect On Income Inequality
First, unions no longer equalise incomes after the decline around the 1970s. Unions have lost the power to provide workers with equal and fair working conditions and wages. According to Rosenfeld (2014), although inequality among union members is still lower than that in non-union members, unions membership decreased, and unions have lost many capacities to affect inequality in non-union income. Wage inequality of full-time private sector union members has increased. Inequality has grown among both male workers and women.
The disparity rate for male workers has raised to 40%, and the rate for women workers has increased by 60% (Rosenfeld 2014, 81). Although unions can keep the inequality rate for union members lower than for non-union members, they have lost the power to control non-union members’ income situation.
Unions declined because they do not hold the ability to affect both inequality rate of union members and non-union members. The increasing inequality rate is a signal of weakened unions in the United States. Thus, unions nowadays are not able to equalise incomes and provide fair wages to people.
The Racial Inequality Issue
Second, because of the changing environment, unions no longer counteract racial inequality. Unions do not have the capacity to create the equality between races.
Although unionisation rates increased during the 1970s, it declined afterwards (Rosenfeld 2014, 103). De-unionisation has caused the increased racial inequality rate, which makes unions fall faster and get trapped in a vicious circle. Unions will lose more power due to the continuous decline.
According to Rosenfeld (2014), the de-unionization has made wage levels low, and the private sector wage gap between races has grown. The gap is a very clear signal that the racial inequality has increased in the private sector since unions declined.
Moreover, according to Rosenfeld, in the public sector, the gap between black women and white women also increased. For example, the inequality rate increased in the public sector. This is to say that inequality between black and white workers increased both in private and public sectors after the decline of unions since the 1970s.
The Decline In Immigrants
Next, the decline of unions in the United States in the 1970s has left immigrants in a worse situation because unions no longer play a prominent role in assimilating immigrants. Thus, it becomes harder for immigrants to get into unions. During the peak of union movements, unions offered those disadvantaged immigrants firm economic foundation as to support them (Rosenfeld 2014, 133). However, after the decline of unions, immigrants started to face a terrible situation.
There are two explanations for the drop in immigrant membership: the Solidary Theory and the Positional Theory. The Solidary Theory suggests that the decline of unions, immigrants are very likely to stick with each other in the same racial group. It is not very likely for recent arrival immigrants to spend time organising collective actions and joining unions.
The Positional Theory suggests that when these immigrants are in a relatively stable environment, geographic factors will affect their ability to join unions too because the union rates are based on where these immigrants find jobs (Rosenfeld 2014, 145).
This shows that because of the decline in union movements in the United States, immigrants have faced more problems. Unions no longer have the ability to ensure that many of them can be part of the union and can no longer protect their rights. In this sense, these people will not be able to join the union quickly.
The Low-Income Population Lost Its Representation
Last but not least, as a result of the decline of the unions in the United States, low-income Americans do not have a political voice anymore. In other words, union workers will not be able to express their opinions and politicians and governments will ignore these people. Many union workers do not have high academic degrees, and most of them lack a college education. Thus, the power of a political voice has shifted from union workers to their employers.
As a result, government staff dominated the labour movement, and union workers do not play any significant roles in the trade union movement (Rosenfeld 2014, 183). Also according to Rosenfeld (2014), most of these employees are well educated and have high academic degrees. The model of workers and employers is a pyramid. Union workers are the bottom part of the pyramid and employers are the top.
Moreover, after the decline of unions, the power of workers shifted to those employers who are at the top of the pyramid. Thus, the bottom part loses power and will suffer from the weight of the top. After losing their power and rights, union workers will lose the chances and capacities to fight for their benefits. This can have a significant impact on the society: most people cannot express their political voice.
Surviving The Changing Environment
Although the decline of unions has caused many adverse effects on workers, activists recently figured out three new ways to survive in the changing environment. The first way is to develop based on the community by building a border linkage and network. The second way is to shift the focus from the majority of union workers to minority workers who have terrible living and working conditions because of their low wages. The third way is to create some innovations that can help union labourers to achieve better lives.
First, to survive, activists have started to build a community-based network in the society. Although the leader-centered model of unions has declined, the power can also be separated because centralised control is easily targeted. After collective bargaining does not work in the society anymore, there is a new way for workers to assert their interests: activists start to organise some self-employed persons to join, such as taxi drivers.
When the power of unions is not centralised but separated instead, they will not be targeted easily. People such as taxi drivers are not concentrated in one point, and they can gather their power when necessary. In this sense, people who do different jobs will work together to achieve the same goal and a network of different people will be built.
According to Greenwald (2012), there are more job positions for freelancers who are self-employed too. Freelancers are entirely different from autoworkers who all work in a large factory (Greenwald 2012, 121). They will have more space and time to mobilise the non-leader centred movements.
There is a transition in today’s society (Greenwald 2012, 121). The centralised labour movements transfer to the separate power movements. The total strength of the movement does not decrease, when all individuals work together in the movement, they will still have a very high efficiency.
This new model of development invented by unions can help unions adapt to the new social environment. Even though there are restrictions on them, they will still have the chance to develop and survive.
Freelancing Vs Full Employment
Second, after the decline, activists now find a new way to revive by shifting the focus from the majority of workers to those minority workers who still earn low wages.
There are many companies in the United States offering their employees low wages. For example, Walmart offers low wages to workers because their goal is to provide low-priced goods and have to produce high volume to minimise costs (Gupta, 2). This example is to say that companies such as Walmart have enough incentives to offer workers very low wages.
After the decline of unions in the United States, labourers do not have the capacity to mobilise large-scale movements and some of them even cannot protect their fundamental rights. Some workers even live in a warehouse because they cannot afford other places. Moreover, some warehouses are company towns in which workers purchase their own business’s products because of the low price (Gupta 2013,9).
Attracting The Masses
Under this kind of situation, workers live at the bottom of the society, and they have no protest, dissent, argument. Unions have found that among diverse groups of people, low-wage workers are most likely to join the movement and ask for higher wages.
Although activists were able to mobilise majority groups of workers to join movements, they have to shift the focus to minority workers who have the incentive to fight for their wages. Workers in the fast food industry also suffer from terrible working conditions (Aschoff 2013, 1).
This evidence shows a diverse coverage of the field of low-wage workers. According to Finnegan (2014), there is a huge amount of fast food workers fighting for lifting wages thereby providing their family members with pride and dignity.
Many activists have organised some labour movements to change the terrible working environments for workers. For example, in Seattle, unions have tried to mobilise the full power of working people in building democratic movements (Socialist Alternative 2014, 6).
It shows that activists have taken actions to make the change to revive themselves. According to Aschoff, the public is concerned about the sustainability of low-wage workers.
In other words, there is an increasing trend of the public noticing and caring about low-wage workers. In this sense, the mobilisation of low-wage workers has become a major method of unions as to enforce their capacity and survive in the new environment.
Last but not least, after the decline, activists have started to adopt some innovations by making information spread faster in the society to help develop in a sustainable way in the new environment. New types of union movements are necessary because collective bargaining cannot achieve large-scale effects as it did before (Rolf 2014, 1).
A very important way to help unions get rid of environmental constraints is to make changes and create ways of self-saving. There is a way to can connect union workers together and provide them with enough space to express their opinions and requirements at the same time.
For example, WhatsApp is a successful tool because it connects people with computers, and workers can rate their employers without exposing their names (Rolf 2014, 1).
Thus, union workers will not face the risk of getting fired or suffering consequences from their employers. Moreover, union workers can claim better work conditions and higher wages through the internet platform if they are not satisfied with current situations.
To mobilise innovative labour movements, activists have mobilised labourers to occupy public space in protest (Gupta 2013,9). Protests such as occupying public places can help unions get public awareness thereby achieving more support. Activists use media and the internet as mediums and have effectively revived labour movements.
To conclude, due to the changing political, institutional, and economic environments, unions no longer hold strong power. Unions are not able to take collective action as successfully as before. Their declines have caused four major impacts upon today’s society.
The income inequality among workers has increased because unions do not have the ability to ensure all workers have the same working conditions and wages. Moreover, the racial inequality increases because unions have lost the ability to counteract the inequality after declining. Moreover, immigrants in the United States suffer from worse conditions.
It has become difficult for them to join unions because unions no longer assimilate immigrants. The last negative impact is that workers in the United States lack political voice because unions no longer provide them with chances to express their views. Although the environment has become tougher for unions and workers, activists have figured out some ways to fix the situation. First, activists tried to create a zone in which most labour movements are community-based. Community-based movements can spread the power and the risk of being targeted at the same time. Next, activists started to concentrate on mobilising workers who have very low wages.
Unions provide them with incentives for achieving a better life and persuade them to join. Last, activists have found new solutions related to internet and media fields in which there will be fewer constraints and risks. Activists have achieved a border world by innovating. There is an increasing trend of unions after the decline. Activists and unions have adapted to the difficult situation and started to take actions and put themselves into a virtuous circle in which they have many chances to revive in the future.