What Happened to American Unions?
My favorite subplot in Brink Lindsey’s “Nostalgianomics” is his tale of the decline of American unionization rates. He begins by ridiculing people who blame the change on virtually non-existent policy changes:
Scrounging about for a policy explanation for declining unionization, Levy and Temin point to the failure of a 1978 labor law reform bill to survive a Senate filibuster. They might as well have added the failure in any year to pass legislation requiring all employees to be union members. In any event, maintenance of the policy status quo is not a policy change…
Brink then highlights some fascinating evidence that I should have heard about long ago:
As economist Henry Farber of Princeton and sociologist Bruce Western of Harvard have pointed out, the main cause of declining unionization has been a dramatic difference in employment growth between unionized and nonunionized workplaces. Between 1973 and 1998, employment at unionized firms declined on average by 2.9 percent a year, while jobs at nonunion firms grew at an average rate of 2.8 percent a year. To counteract this differential and hold union density constant would have required torrid rates of organizing new workers. Yet organizing rates have been in long-term decline since the early 1950s. Only organizing rates at early-1950s levels would have sufficed to prevent the drop in union density experienced since the early 1970s. (emphasis mine)
Tell your friends.