Jun 07, 2012 4:15 AM GMT
Excellent piece by the very nonpartisan Foreign Affairs. Too long to quote in it's entirety but worth reading in full.
Foreign AffairsLabor unions underwrote the affluence of the American working class in the twentieth century. They ensured that manual work paid white-collar wages and gave a collective voice to workers in the political process. The story of labor's decline is often told with an air of inevitability; unions became outmoded as American capitalism became more dynamic. In such an account, the consequences of deunionization -- rising inequality, wage stagnation, and declining political participation -- appear equally inevitable.
But the story has not played out the same way everywhere. The turbulent economic conditions of the 1970s affected all the advanced economies. In the small, trade-dependent economies of Scandinavia, highly centralized unions were able to restrain wage growth, curb inflation, and maintain employment. In Germany, unions expanded their role in workplace governance and the training of skilled workers. Although the proportion of union members among workers did decrease in western Europe during this time, it did so far less than in the United States. And the coverage of collective-bargaining rights generally held steady. European labor unions still represent a broad constituency of workers and actively contribute to their countries' economic success. Moreover, although some claim otherwise, unions have not made the global economic crisis there worse. Where national unions have historically had a role in macroeconomic management -- in Belgium and the Netherlands, for example -- negotiations over wages and working hours helped head off big increases in unemployment in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
Although labor in the United States is on the ropes, the current era of slow wage growth (and, now, high unemployment) might provide an opportunity for its revival. "Inequality" has entered the American political lexicon, partly as a result of the Occupy Wall Street protests that began in mid-2011. Their message will be difficult to sustain, however, without an institutional supporter intent on politicizing the problem of inequality. Of course, inequality is just one of a number of adverse trends. For decades, wages have trailed productivity, attempts to reform labor laws have consistently failed, and, most recently, the government has bailed out banks rather than households. These developments suggest an economic game that has become rigged against working-class Americans. If unions speak out about these economic injustices, they can reclaim their historic role as advocates for a broad range of working people.