Why Aren’t There More Union Members in America? A Reply to Will Wilkinson

Will Wilkinson is awfully confident that the labor movement doesn’t have a future in America because…Americans don’t want it to have a future in America.

Now, if you ask me, the combination of continually increasing global competitiveness and the peculiarly individualistic tenor of American public opinion makes the prospect of revitalising organised labour exceedingly unlikely. Organised labour still has plenty of fight in it, and no doubt it will win some important battles in the coming months and years. But the war is long lost, I’m afraid. No matter how hard the left claps for Tinkerbell Local #272, she’s not getting up.

Well, I didn’t ask him, but he did ask me.  In a Twitter exchange, where I said to him that union-busting has a lot to do with the past, present, and future of the labor movement in America. Wilkinson asked for cites; I gave him one and then told him to email me if he wanted more.  He didn’t.  So I’ll provide them here.

But first let’s remember a few things.

1.  Polls shows that a majority of non-managerial workers want to be represented by a union.  Richard Freeman, the Harvard economist who’s studied this issue more than anyone else, shows that in 2005, 53 percent of those workers, if given the opportunity, would have voted for union representation in a union election.  That, he argues, would have produced a unionization rate of 58 percent.

So why is the unionization rate more like 12 percent and decreasing everyday?

2.  Employers rely on a highly sophisticated “union-avoidance” industry to make sure those workers don’t get their unions.  Union-busters try to stop elections from being held.  If elections are held, they try to make sure—through threats, intimidation, and other illegal means—workers don’t vote for the union. If workers make it clear that they will vote for the union, they get fired, harassed, demoted, and so on.  Gordon Lafer, the University of Oregon political scientist who is one of the leading experts on union elections, estimates that 1 in 17 of every eligible voter in a union election gets illegally fired or suspended for his or her support for a union.  And, of course, the ramifications of those individual incidents extend far beyond the worker or even the workplace: when they see what happens to one pro-union worker, other workers (or workers in other workplaces) aren’t likely to step up or speak out in support of a union.

3.  Even when employers don’t break the law, election campaigns are overwhelmingly stacked against unions. Union election campaigns that are run according to the letter of the law, Lafer demonstrates, are more like the kinds of elections we used to see in the Soviet Union, and certainly don’t conform to the election standards the United States claims to uphold around the world.

4.  More generally, labor law excludes about a quarter of the American workforce, rendering many workers ineligible for union representation.  As the authors of this report argue:

There are 140.5 million people in the civilian workforce. Our research found that of these employees, 33.5 million, or 23.8%, have no rights under the NLRA or any other labor law: no legally-protected right to join or form a union, no legally-protected right to bargain collectively for their wages and conditions of work, and therefore, effectively no freedom of association in the workplace.

Now, it could be that Americans in their heart of hearts don’t really want unions, that they’re the individualists  everyone from Will Wilkinson to Will Wilkinson thinks they are.  (Okay, that was unfair: lots of smart people, like Louis Hartz, make the same mistake as Wilkinson.)  But until American workers are given an opportunity to register what they think on these matters, in the workplace but absent coercion and intimidation, I’ll take a pass on what Will Wilkinson thinks on these matters.

I don’t mean to be dismissive of Wilkinson; he’s a smart and charming fellow. (Our little Twitter exchange prompted my clearly delighted 3-year-old daughter to run around the apartment shouting, “Why is Will Wilkinson tweeting?  Why is Will Wilkinson tweeting?”) It’s just that there’s a vast body of research out there—and really smart people like Lafer, Freeman, Kate Bronfenbrenner, Dorian Warren, and others—that Wilkinson might want to consult before he speculates any further on the inner recesses of the American mind.

If you’re interested in reading more about all this, check out these sources:








Paul Weiler, Governing the Workplace (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990)

Richard Freeman and Joel Rogers, What Workers Want (Ithaca: ILR Press, 1999) [there may be a later edition of this]

Corey Robin, Fear: The History of a Political Idea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), ch. 8


Update (2:30 pm)

While I was working on this post, I got an email from Wilkinson asking me for the cites I had tweeted him about. I didn’t see the email before this post went live, so wanted to correct the record here.  Note to self: check your email before you get splenetic. At least on the interwebs.


  1. Jon July 21, 2011 at 2:13 pm | #

    Since we are with the assumption that “continually increasing global competitiveness” is a fundamental law of nature which cannot be altered, it might be useful to look at countries with large current account surpluses and see if it is incompatible with a strongly unionized labor force, as Wilkinson suggests.

    Let’s see: 5 out of the top 10 countries with the largest trade surpluses (Japan, Germany, Norway, Switzerland, and the Netherlands) all have unionization rates nearly twice that of the United States. China, of course, has the largest surplus, but do we really want to be like China? If you look at account surplus as a percentage of GDP, you get the same picture.

    Leaving aside the obsession with trade and increasing our “global competitiveness” (almost always accomplished by reducing wages rather than increasing innovation) despite relatively small contribution to GDP, it seems that both parts of Wilkinson’s argument don’t hold much water.

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