Opinion and Economic Analysis

HICKS: Observing the transformation of unions on Labor Day 

September 1, 2012

This week, my third grader asked me what Labor Day was all about. I told him it was a chance to visit Grandma and sample some peach pie—both sufficient reasons for a holiday. The realities of Labor Day are a more complicated affair.

What I didn’t tell him was that, in this column, on a sunny Labor Day five years past, I asserted that the American labor movement was dead. Given what has transpired since, it would appear my diagnosis was a bit optimistic.

On this weekend, it might be good to focus on what has become of the labor movement that once meant so much to America. To begin, I have to clarify that I have neither love nor antipathy for unions. They are simply a social movement to be studied, and I assume they are filled with men and women of good will and bad will in equal proportion to the population as a whole.

For a long time, three-quarters of a century perhaps, industrial unions made an important difference in national policy. It is almost banal to recount that many of the things about the workplace that we now take for granted were championed for by unions. For a long time, too, the big American unions were solidly democratic (with a small d, as in democracy). It is no accident that we celebrate a day to recognize labor in September, not on May 1, the traditional holiday of socialist movements.

Over the past three decades, much has changed. The American union movement has lost membership faster than any mainstream group in our national history. Today, about one in 18 workers in the private sector belongs to a union, down from more than one in three when I was a boy. In contrast, more than one in three government workers is now in a union.

This decline came at the tail end of a long string of policy successes, but it also came at a time unions began providing huge financial support to one political party, most recently a whopping $400 million spent in the 2008 election. They went from being small d, to big D, Democrats.

This asymmetry of financial support accompanied an overall shift in policy focus. The American labor movement is no longer about workers wrestling with companies for a share of revenue. The American labor movement today is animated by an effort to wrest from taxpayers every available dollar. This has pushed hundreds of cities and several states to the edge of bankruptcy. It has also enriched union leaders. For example, the Indiana State Teachers Association has a slew of folks making over $200,000 a year.

Now, I want to be quick to add that I don’t think ISTA leadership is overpaid. After all, these folks have to argue with straight-faced composure that Indiana teachers ought not to receive annual performance evaluations like the rest of us. This is what Labor Day has turned into, and is why so many American taxpayers will focus on something else this year.•

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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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