Why America's labor unions are about to die

By Raymond Hogler, Colorado State University
Activists rally outside the Supreme Court in January as it heard arguments in a union case. A new court appointment by President-elect Donald Trump could jeopardize union dues. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
Activists rally outside the Supreme Court in January as it heard arguments in a union case. A new court appointment by President-elect Donald Trump could jeopardize union dues. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

I've written before on how the decline of organized labor beginning in the late 1970s gave birth to the backlash that fueled Donald Trump's election.


Labor's deterioration weakened worker protections, kept wages stagnant and caused income inequality to soar to the highest levels in over eight decades. It also made workers feel they needed a savior like Trump.

In other words, his unlikely victory follows a straight line from the defeat of the Labor Reform Act of 1978 to the election of 2016. That bill would have modernized and empowered unions through more effective recognition procedures accompanied by enhanced power in negotiations. Instead, its death by filibuster became the beginning of their end.

It's a sad twist of irony that Trump's election and Republican dominance across the country may finally destroy once and for all the institution most responsible for working- and middle-class prosperity. It will likely be a three-punch fight, ending with a fatal blow: the expansion of right-to-work laws across the country that would permanently empty the pockets of labor unions, eroding them of virtually all their collective solidarity.


How we got here

In 1980, union membership density stood at 23 percent of the work force; some 40 years later, just over 11 percent of American workers belong to unions. During the same period, wealth inequality in the United States continued to accelerate largely on a social class basis.

White males without college degrees reacted to their ongoing misery in 2016 with a political transformation unrivaled since Franklin Delano Roosevelt's electoral victory in 1932. The election's postmortem pundits offered differing explanations for Trump's victory, including racism, sexism and the ennui of Hillary Clinton supporters.

A popular narrative argues that deteriorating economic conditions provided the fuel for the Trump conflagration as it swept through the former union strongholds of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio.

Three blows for labor

Despite the enthusiasm of his working-class supporters, Trump's economic policies would bring them a raw deal, not a New Deal. Three key areas will play a crucial role in union diminution and workers' bargaining power during Trump's administration, with further declines in real hourly earnings.

The first is regulatory. On his inauguration, Trump has the opportunity to appoint two new members to the National Labor Relations Board now controlled by Obama appointees with administrative discretion to implement pro-labor decisions. With their new majority, Republican appointees will have a smorgasbord of past cases and regulations to repeal and replace. Trump's future replacements undoubtedly will promote a business-friendly agenda, and the board's shift in emphasis will be immediately apparent.


The second is the Supreme Court. If Trump fills the vacant seat with someone in the mold of the late Antonin Scalia, the new court will likely uphold what in my view is the rickety constitutional theory of union dues put forth by Samuel Alito in Knox v. SEIU. Alito's rule holds that public sector union members have a constitutional right to decline dues payments unless they consent to do so. Or, in Alito's words, dues payers will be deemed to "opt out" of dues unless they "opt in."

In early 2016, the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case, which would have mandated a constitutional right-to-work rule, stalled out with Scalia's demise, but a similar case is moving through the lower federal court system that raises the matter once more. The litigation will eventually work its way back to the Supreme Court, and the new Trump justice can affirm the undoing of public sector union dues.

The third and most lethal blow against unions, along with board and court hostility, is the expansion of right-to-work laws as a by-product of Trump's victory.


Trump ran on a platform of making America great again by restoring incomes through innovation and deregulation.

The road ahead for right to work

Trump's plan meshes perfectly with the ideology of right to work, which promotes itself as a tool of development and economic advancement, even though recent evidence shows the claim is dubious.

Twenty-six states have now enacted right-to-work laws, which forbid compulsory payment of union dues by workers who are covered under a collective bargaining agreement. Among other adverse consequences, the laws create a free-rider problem because under the exclusive representation doctrine, employees who do not pay dues must still receive the same wages, benefits and protections as those who do.

Republicans in the past election won a legislative trifecta in the states of Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio and New Hampshire. Those states are presently not right-to-work, but such conditions will not long stand.

In Missouri, Republicans legislators said they expect to pass a right-to-work law that bars mandatory union fees early in 2017, and the incoming GOP governor says he will sign it.

Legislators in Kentucky followed a slightly different route by focusing on county rather than statewide legislation. Their gambit paid off in November when a federal appeals court upheld the validity of a county right-to-work law. Expect the entire state to adopt the policy soon.


New Hampshire has traditionally followed the principle of collective security and defeated right-to-work initiatives in 2011 and 2015. But with the election of a Republican governor and legislature, the issue could prevail, which would make the Granite State the first in New England to institute right to work.

And in Ohio, a Republican legislator introduced a bill in April to ban compulsory dues payments, declaring: "Over the past three-quarters of a century, unions have become the ultimate zombies." While Gov. John Kasich is not enthusiastic about right to work, he could yield to political reality if the bill passes.

Clearly, right-to-work supporters have seized the initiative and are marching on the offensive. With enough political momentum, the battle for right to work could soon migrate to the federal level, where a national right-to-work bill is pending in Congress. Republicans have the votes to pass it in the House. In theory, it could face a filibuster in the Senate, but as a practical matter, the legislative dumpster fire during Trump's first year will burn so hot and bright that right to work may become an early casualty in the battle for Democrats' political survival.


How will it all end?

Since the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, class forces in this country have fought for supremacy over the political and economic machinery as Republicans attempted to roll back the consequences of the New Deal legislative revolution. Right to work figures importantly in the struggle between labor and capital.

As I show in my book on the subject, right-to-work laws are statistically correlated with lower rates of union membership, lower levels of human development, lower per capita incomes, lower levels of trust and less progressive tax schemes. In short, the empire of right to work leans toward further entrenching the power of corporations, not the economic emancipation of American wage earners.

The voters who brought Trump to the big dance would be the ones who suffer when he leaves with his wealthy and glamorous friends. As an article in Fortune suggests, Trump's plan for deportations and broken trade agreements will inflict serious injury on the economy in general and in particular on those industrial sectors that elected him. The rest of us will be collateral damage.

The Conversation

Raymond Hogler is a professor of management at Colorado State University.


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Latest Headlines