Figure 1: Source: Labor Research Association & Bureau of Labor Statistics

Figure 1: Source: Labor Research Association & Bureau of Labor Statistics

by Stan Cutler

In February, 2015, 200 members of the Philadelphia Metropolitan Regional Council of Carpenters descended on the Philadelphia Auto Show to stage a protest against the Pennsylvania Convention Center. This was seven months after the union had been excluded from employment at the center because its leaders signed-on to a customer satisfaction agreement after a deadline. It was a power play that Organized Labor lost decisively.

Allegedly, the protest got ugly right away. The Convention Center’s executive director ordered security personnel to escort the protestors outside because, in his telling, exhibitors were complaining about men, many wearing hoodies with Carpenters’ Union logos, getting into the cars on display, stuffing the glove boxes with union brochures, pulling wires, and removing fuses.

According to the Center Director, when confronted, the protestors acted belligerently. The union dispatched members in groups throughout the day of the protest, and each group was escorted from the hall as quickly as possible.

In July, 1948, the story was entirely different. The old Philadelphia Convention Hall on the west bank of the Schuylkill River hosted the nominating conventions of both parties that year. The unions played a major role in the Democratic Party, occupying perhaps the most important seat at the party’s table, their endorsements essential to any contender who hoped to run for President. They made policy in those days. In 2016, the Carpenters’ Union may be banned from the auditorium.

We’ve been looking ahead to the 2016 Democratic Convention, comparing it to the 1948 Convention. One of the more dramatic changes is how much Labor’s influence in the Party has declined. Organized labor’s diminished influence is partially due to the dramatic decline in union membership since 1948. See Figure 1.

As private sector unions have declined, membership has increased among government service workers. In 1948, only 11 percent of public sector employees were in unions, compared to 34 percent of private sector employees. In 2012, the ratio was reversed: 38 percent of public sector employees were unionized compared with only 8 percent in the private sector.

The shift from private to public sector union membership influences voting patterns and politics. The white, working class men who were likely to be Democrats in 1948 are now more likely to identify as Republican. For these voters, anti-Government and anti-Union attitudes are interrelated and find expression in the Republican Party brand. This shift in attitude has had a profound influence on national elections, often summarized as the voting power of “Reagan Democrats” because it first manifested itself decisively in the outcome of the 1980 election.

Figure 2 Source: U.S. Census Bureau and Piketty & Saez (2013)

Figure 2 Source: U.S. Census Bureau and Piketty & Saez (2013)

Take a look at Figure 2. It shows the increase in the economic growth of the top 10 percent of the population in comparison to average income. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that union membership has declined since 1948, from one in three workers to one in 10 in 2015. The decline in membership matches a decline in average income. At the same time, and at the same rate, very rich people have gotten very much richer.

When I compare the decline in private sector union membership (Figure 1) and the rising income of the richest Americans (Figure 2), I’m struck by the almost identical angles of the trend lines in the two charts. As union membership has declined, so has working class income, even as manager-class income as a share of the whole has increased.

Party affiliation is about more than economics; there are powerful race and gender issues at play as well. Anti-discrimination legislation passed in the latter half of the 20th century requires governments at all levels to permit unions, to employ women and minorities, and to ensure fair competition for jobs. For some white American men, anti-government and anti-minority sentiments are comingled. For that sort of voter, the diverse, pro-government Democratic Party is not merely unrepresentative of their interests – it’s antagonistic.

In 2016, the Republicans will hold their convention in Cleveland. It is unlikely that the speakers will say much about organized labor except, perhaps, to insinuate that unions are “part of the problem.” Indeed, Republican legislators and presidents have been steadily removing legal protections from private sector unions ever since 1947, when the Republican 80th Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, overriding a Democratic presidential veto with the assistance of Southern Democratic congressmen. Those Southerners are now staunch Republicans.

The days of big American factories, the times when large numbers of organized workers had the power to halt production, are long gone. No longer do thousands of workers trudge through factory gates for shift work. A salaried employee nowadays is more likely to drive a car to a suburban parking lot and go to work in a cubicle. Her fellow employees will be a small coterie of men and women who are afraid to organize because they will be fired for trying.