weather icon Clear

COMMENTARY: The American labor movement is killing itself

Joe Biden likes to talk about how “unions built this country.” He’s right — up to a point. From FDR to Nixon, the labor movement played a significant role in determining the nation’s economic destiny.

Since the 1970s, a decade marked by economic extremes Biden seems intent on revisiting, the union movement has been in decline. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, participation in the labor movement is down across the board. The number of private-sector workers belonging to unions is at an all-time low of 6.1 percent, and the total number of workers in unions dropped by almost a quarter of a million in 2021.

Unions have lost a lot of clout over the years. Business conditions back then forced corporate leaders to start looking seriously at moving essential operations out of the United States. Their remaining political influence comes from contributions extracted from members to fund political activities that influence the politicians who protect their interests.

The conventional wisdom holds that union membership is down because the laws haven’t kept up with the times. Union leaders and the politicians they keep in their hip pockets say it’s become too hard for workers to organize. They want to boost their membership by returning to the days when people had to join a union as a condition of their employment, even if they did not want to.

It’s an interesting approach, but it doesn’t fit the facts. America’s workers may no longer need the unions as they did. Employers in the post-industrial era have become smarter, offering better pay and benefits and greater flexibility on the job site than many union shops allow.

The unions, of course, would argue against this. But what do they have to show in the way of success?

The high-profile 2021 effort to organize workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama failed when then voted against by a margin of 2-to-1. The unions got a do-over on that vote, but we’ll see if it changes the outcome.

In Colorado, local members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union found themselves betrayed by their president, Kim Cordova, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Over the past several weeks, negotiations over a new contract between the King Soopers chain of supermarkets and Colorado’s UFCW Local 7 became tense amid a strike that restricted access to food and dealt a devastating blow to area residents.

The Biden economy has made things difficult. Inflation is eating away at wage increases like it hasn’t in decades. Hours before the strike began, the union rejected an offer by King Soopers to bring the minimum starting wage up to $16 per hour and pay increases of up to $4.50 per hour for its members.

For 10 days, members of the union sat at home or marched on a picket line while Cordova continued to collect her $200,000-plus annual salary while promising she would get a better deal.

The offer eventually a majority of Local 7 members accepted appears to include many of the same proposals Cordova called “concessionary” days earlier according to the World Socialist Web Site. That same week, Sanders hosted a virtual panel that amounted to little more than “damage control for the union” and praising Cordova’s leadership.

If this doesn’t seem fair, it’s because it isn’t. But it has been happening repeatedly as union bosses such as Cordova choose what’s good for the union and themselves over what’s good for the workers. In the 1960s, the leaders of the newspaper unions in New York City allowed a handful of dailies to shutter rather than concede to concessions that would have kept them alive and kept people on the job. During the Obama presidency, the unions vetoed a plan by a private-sector entrepreneur bidding to take the Saturn brand off the hands of General Motors as long as he could run it as a nonunion company. Again, the union survived, but the workers didn’t.

The politicians such as Biden and Sanders who say the labor movement is dying need to face up to the fact that it’s union leaders such as Cordova who are killing it. It’s not murder. It’s suicide.

Peter Roff is a former UPI and U.S. News & World Report columnist who is now affiliated with several Washington-D.C.-based public policy organizations. Contact him at RoffColumns@gmail.com.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.