Looking at Metropolitan Areas for an Understanding of Declining Union Strength

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workers-1-1024x982New Orleans   More than a decade ago I spent a lot of time with Joel Rogers, longtime professor of law, sociology, and political science at the University of Wisconsin, analyzing the fact that cities and metro areas were still the last bastions of union strength, and that was where we needed to make our stand.  Some listened.  Some didn’t.  Either way, union density has now fallen to 6.6% for private sector workers in the USA and is 35.9% for public sector workers in 2012, even with a number of recent state-by-state assaults.

But, why?

Todd Vachon and Michael Wallace from the University of Connecticut contributed an interesting analysis on these issues in the Labor Studies Journal (v. 38, #3, September 2013) by looking at a bunch of factors including frequently discussed culprits like globalization and deindustrialization to try and understand statistically how these forces operated to deflate unionization in one metro area after another.  They looked at 191 metropolitan areas where they could get meaningful data from the 2000 Census dating all of these factors to 2003, which though a decade ago, they argue is still meaningful since it was the first comprehensive look at what is happening to workers and unions in metro areas in over 30 years.

Cutting to the chase they reported no encouraging news, just the facts, ma’am, so if that’s what you are looking for, forget about it.  There’s no comfort in reading that in metro areas like McAllen, Texas, Gainesville, Florida, Houma, Louisiana, Punta Gorda, Florida, and Montgomery, Alabama we are already at a statistical zero in union density which is deadly sobering, even if not wildly surprising.

On the other hand they did find that finger pointing at some culprits was a waste of energy while others were right on the money.

Globalization is a factor in lowering union density, but mainly due to foreign direct investment in the private sector.  No matter what’s happening in their home countries, when foreign companies invest in the USA, they like it non-union.  Certainly this has been borne out in the huge organizing problems that autoworkers have had in organizing the “transplants” or foreign carmakers in this country and the fight to organize T-Mobile telephones operations have been similar challenged.   The authors find that FDI also hurts the public sector because of the tax breaks that many cities have given such firms to induce them to locate in their communities, taking money away from public workers.   Not surprisingly, FDI looks for lower wages here, just as US-based transnationals look for lower wages globally as well.

Vachon and Wallace also found that increased immigration into the US has not aided union growth despite the fact that immigrants strongly favor unions in all surveys.  Once again unsurprisingly, the percentage of noncitizens among newer immigrants is retarding growth because of fear of deportation regardless of how much they want to be in a union.

One piece of encouraging news is that private sector density remains relatively robust in areas where there has been rampant deindustrialization, think Detroit and Pittsburgh, in their words, “supporting the hypothesis that former manufacturing centers retain relatively active labor movements, even after decades of declining manufacturing.”  Of course that’s not jumping up and down happy news, because essentially the finding is that where there once was a strong labor movement, even its residual strength keeps declining density relatively higher, but where the labor movement was always weaker, now we may be knocking on the door of oblivion.

For better or worse, it’s in the cities where we have to make our stand, and the only sure conclusion is that we have to keep organizing