Posts Tagged ‘unions’


When I ask my students that question, they don’t really have an answer. That’s because, like much of the rest of the U.S. population, they don’t have much experience with unions, either directly or indirectly—not when the union membership rate has fallen to below 11 percent nationwide and is only 6.4 percent in the private sector.

And if you pose that question to neoclassical economists, the response is: labor unions cause unemployment, by setting a wage rate that exceeds the equilibrium price for labor. According to the neoclassical story,

while union workers (“insiders”) may benefit, unemployed non-union workers (“outsiders”) lose out. So, their overall conclusion is, unions ultimately hurt workers and cause increased inequality. Unions should therefore be discouraged.

For my students who have taken a course in mainstream economics, that’s pretty much the only answer that will be offered to them.*

But what if we look back to the heyday of unions—to the period that begins during the first Great Depression (when the Wagner Act was passed and unionization rates once again began to rise) and extends through the 1950s?

According to a new study by Brantly Callaway and William J. Collins, who utilize a novel dataset compiled from archival records of a survey of male workers in five non-Southern cities conducted in 1951, unions played an important role in reducing inequality, especially at the bottom of the wage scale.


Thus, for example, at the 10th percentile, union workers earned 20.3 log points more than comparable non-union workers—while the difference at the median was smaller and, at the 80th, the difference turns negative.


For less-educated workers (those with less than a high-school education), the premium at the bottom was similar (at 19.1 log points) but the advantage persisted across all percentiles. And the union wage premium was relatively large, and it remained so, throughout the Black income distribution. The clear indication is that the emergence of industrial unions after 1935, which sought to unionize production workers along industry rather than craft lines, opened more better-paying union job opportunities for both less-educated and Black workers.


Callaway and Collins also conduct some counterfactual estimations concerning wage inequality, by looking at what would happen if union workers had been paid according to the non-union wage schedule. Their Table 4 (Panel A), shows that in terms of all measures—overall inequality (the difference between the 80th percentile and the 10th percentile), lower-tail inequality (the difference between the 50th percentile and the 10th percentile), and upper-tail inequality (the difference between the 80th percentile and 50th percentile)—inequality is significantly higher in the counterfactual “no union” scenario than in reality. In other words, the overall wage distribution was considerably narrower in 1950 than it would have been if union members had been paid like non-union members with similar characteristics.

As I see it, there are two lessons that can be drawn from the Callaway and Collins study. First, in terms of U.S. history, unions played a significant role in mitigating the effects of competition among workers, both raising workers’ wages and reducing inequality among workers. Second, with respect to economic theory, their research shows that simple supply-and-demand stories (which neoclassical economists use to attempt to explain inequality in terms of skills and levels of education) are profoundly misleading precisely because they leave out institutions.

One of the most important institutions in the postwar period in the United States, when economic inequality was much lower than today, were labor unions.


*If students were exposed to something other than neoclassical economics, they’d learn that unions do many other things, including helping non-union workers, through: (1) the threat of unionization (nonunion employers worried about a possible unionization drive may match union pay scales to reduce the demand for organization), (2) the ripple effect (like minimum-wage increases, union wage rates for production workers can lead to increases in wages for those above them, e.g., their managers), and (3) the moral economy (unions help institute norms of fairness regarding pay, benefits, and worker treatment that can extend beyond the unionized core of the workforce). They might also learn that, historically and by examining the experience in other countries, unions have often defended and promoted the larger interests of workers—in their enterprises (by demanding a say in decisions about such things as safety and jobs), nationally (by contributing time and money to political parties and campaigns), and internationally (by cooperating with and assisting unionization efforts in other countries).


No one ever accused American conservatives of being particularly original. They started with a story about the failure of government programs and they stick with it, against all evidence.

Originally, conservatives targeted African Americans, who (so the story goes, e.g., in the Moynihan Report) were mired in a culture of poverty and increasingly dependent on government hand-outs. In order for blacks to regain America’s founding virtues (so the story continues)—especially marriage and industriousness—well-meaning but ultimately destructive government programs should be abolished so that they would once again be able to enjoy the security of marriage and dignity of work.

That exact same story has now been transferred to the white working-class. Anyone who’s read Charles Murray and J. D. Vance will recognize the “the pejorative Moynihan report on the black family in white face.”

The latest version of that story was penned by the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks, who cites Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty as the original sin, which “deprived generations of Americans of their fundamental sense of dignity.” According to Brooks, “rural and exurban whites” have been left behind “every bit as much as the urban poor” because they’ve come to “depend on the state instead of creating value for themselves and others.” Real dignity, argues Brooks (echoing a long line of conservative thinkers), stems from people being “authentically, objectively necessary.” And that means working—or at least looking for work.

That’s why Brooks cites the declining labor-force participation rate in the United States beginning with the War on Poverty.

The first problem is, the participation rate has been declining since the mid-1950s, long before Johnson’s program was enacted. As readers can see in the chart at the top of the post, the labor-force participation rate for white men (the red line), which stood at 87.4 percent in 1955, had fallen to 84.2 percent by 1964 and then dropped to 76.6 percent in 2007 (on the eve of the latest crash). If we calculate the change by decades, it dropped by 3.2 percent points in the first decade and then by less then 2 percent points in each succeeding decade.

It makes as much sense to blame the declining labor-force participation rate on Chuck Berry as the War on Poverty.

But notice also that, from the mid-1950s onward, the labor-force participation rate of white women soared—beginning at 33.4 percent (in 1955), rising to 37.3 percent (in 1964), and peaking at 60.2 percent (in 2007). In the terms set forth by Brooks, that increase in dignity more than makes up for the falling rate for men. And much of the increase for women comes after the War on Poverty is enacted.

Instead of mourning the fall in men’s participation, why isn’t the increase for women deemed a great success by Brooks and other conservatives?

The only possible answer is American conservatives hold a nostalgia—an extremely selective nostalgia—for a particular moment in U.S. history. They envision a white working-class made up of men most of whom are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work outside the home, with wives who for the most part stay at home, care for their husbands, and raise future workers. At the same time, conservatives forget about the unions that made it possible for workers to earn a family wage—not to mention the Jim Crow laws and bracero programs that created barriers for black and Hispanic workers to compete for the jobs white working-class men were able to find.

So, no, there never was a Garden of Eden—and, thus, no original sin.


source (pdf)

The share of American workers in unions fell to 10.7 percent in 2016 (down from 11.1 percent in 2015), the lowest level on record, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (pdf).

What we’re seeing is a return to the downward trend for organized labor after membership figures had stabilized in recent years—and this is before the new Republican administration even took office.


source (pdf)

Union membership in the private sector fell by 119 thousand and the membership rate fell 0.3 percentage point to 6.4 percent. There was a slightly larger decrease in union membership in the public sector (down 121 thousand), corresponding to a 0.8 percentage-point drop in the public sector membership rate to 34.4 percent.

Although public sector workers are more likely than their private sector counterparts to be union members, there are still more private-sector union members (7.4 million) than public-sector union members (7.1 million). That’s because public-sector workers account for only about 15 percent of the workforce.



source (pdf)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not publish union data by education level. However, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (pdf), union membership rates rise as education level increases

therefore workers with an advanced degree are the most likely to be union members. In 2016, their membership rate decreased 0.9 percentage point to 16.0 percent. The membership rate for workers with a bachelor’s degree fell 0.5 percentage point to 10.4 percent. Workers with some college but no degree and those with a high school degree all saw their membership rates decrease 0.3 percentage point to 10.6 percent and 9.9 percent, respectively. Workers with less than a high school degree had a union membership rate of 5.4 percent in 2016, the same as in 2015.


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Chris Dillow is right about one thing: citing globalization as the reason for the success of Donald Trump’s campaign, especially among working-class voters, “suits some people very well for foreigners to get the blame rather than for inequality and the health of capitalism to come under scrutiny.”

But that doesn’t mean that, alongside many other factors (from the decline in labor unions to increasing automation), globalization—to be precise, capitalist globalization—doesn’t deserve some good share of the blame.

There are two main ways the U.S. working-class is affected by globalization: in terms of jobs and in terms of consumption.

As far as jobs are concerned, the combination of cheap imports (e.g., toys and garments) and outsourcing (e.g., to produce motor vehicles and electronics) has led to the reallocation of workers away from high-wage manufacturing jobs into other sectors and occupations, with large declines in wages among workers who have been forced to have the freedom to switch. Those effects are pretty straightforward, at least in terms of the research of Avraham Ebenstein, Ann Harrison, and Margaret McMillan.*

What about the cheaper goods workers can buy? The argument that is usually invoked to counter the negative effects on jobs and wages is that workers can now purchase less expensive goods (e.g., at big-box and dollar stores), thereby increasing their consumption.

Here’s Dillow:

For one thing, cheap imports should help workers. If you’re spending $5 on a Chinese T-shirt rather than $10 on a US-made one, you’ve got $5 more to spend on other things. That should increase demand and jobs.

That may be true in the short run, since with the same nominal incomes workers can add other items to their consumption bundle.

But what Dillow and others miss is the fact that, as the prices of items in the wage bundle decline (and without an ability to defend the value of their customary standard of living), the value of workers’ labor power also has a tendency to decline. As a result, employers have to pay less to get access to laborers’ ability to work—and their profits rise.

Considering both jobs and consumption, members of the U.S. working-class—many of them voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin—correctly understood they were under assault by the forces of globalization.

The fact that U.S. workers have, in recent decades, been negatively affected by globalization doesn’t mean either adopting a nationalist stance or ignoring all the other factors. Nationalism (e.g., in terms of erecting protectionist barriers to trade) just pits workers in one country against those in other countries and doesn’t, within any country including the United States, solve the problem of workers getting the short end of the economic stick. And, certainly, we need to look at all the causes of workers’ current plight, from deteriorating real minimum wages to skill- and power-biased technological change.

However, globalization as it is currently configured has been one of the strategies employers have been able to use to discipline and punish workers, increasing both inequality and insecurity.

Globalization is therefore at least in part to blame for Trump’s victory.


*Even those who, like Gary Clyde Hufbauer and Tyler Moran, want to argue that, through the “prosperity effect,” globalization has made a positive contribution to average wages, are forced to admit that “Richer households did enjoy a disproportionate share of benefits from globalization, because of their dominant claim on corporate profits and proprietors’ incomes and the very small impact of foreign competition on the wages of highly skilled workers.”


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