The Real Reason Unions Are Dying

photo illustration of picketers holding signsThe country's GDP has been growing at a nice clip forever (give or take a recession or two). But in the past three decades, workers have been getting a smaller share of the pie. Many economists blame technology, saying it enables companies to increase productivity and supercharge profits, without giving workers an equivalent salary bump. But according to a new study, the real culprit is the decline of unions.

The study, published in the June issue of the American Sociological Review, looked at workers' share of GDP over time and found that the biggest drop occurred in industries where unions' influence has dramatically waned. When workers lost power, their share of the profits fell, according to the analysis by Tali Kristal, a sociology and anthropology lecturer at the University of Haifa, Israel.

Since the late 1970s, American workers' share, in the form of salaries, declined 6 percent overall. See the graph below: "Labor's share" refers to both employees and the self-employed.

But the bulk of the decline occurred in sectors such as construction, manufacturing and transportation where unions have experienced the most precipitous decline, according to the study. Kristal's findings echo the results of a 2011 study which calculated that the decline of unions explained one-third of the increase in wage inequality among men since 1973.

What about the non-unionized industries?: Kristal did find that in the Industries that were never very unionized, such as finance, real estate and insurance, labor's share actually increased modestly. Kristal explained via email that this might be because of "the notoriously high salaries on Wall Street," which climbed to dizzying heights during the booming 1990s.

More:Unions Target Federal Contractors In New Strategy

Technology plays a role: Kristal found that technology is a key factor precisely because it served to make unions less powerful. It's done this in three ways, she says.

1. It enabled employers to get rid of unionized workers. A lot of production processes over the past few decades have been automated, according to Kristal, and many of the folks who previously did those jobs were blue collar union workers.

b) It made anti-union actions by employers (legal and illegal) more sophisticated. The computer revolution empowered management, Kristal claims, enabling them to bust unions with greater force: monitoring employees, refusing to negotiate, and firing union activists.

c) It meant lower-skilled workers made less money and higher-skilled workers more, Kristal says. This division "undermines workers' solidarity," she writes, "thereby reducing the likelihood of working-class cohesion and collective action."

"For decades, science fiction warned of a future when we would be architects of our own obsolescence, replaced by our machines," wrote the Associated Press in January, announcing that this "future has arrived."

But according to Kristal, that isn't exactly true. Workers haven't been replaced by machines; rather, machines have replaced unions with nothing.

Labor Union Membership Drops to Record Low

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