Trade unions in America
The union movement misses a big opportunity to halt its decline
VOLKSWAGEN'S factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was supposed to be the spot where decades of decline ended for the United Auto Workers and for America's industrial unions in general.
Instead, workers dealt the movement a crushing blow on February 14th, voting against unionising by 712 to 626.
The UAW has been campaigning for years to organise workers at foreign-owned carmakers in the South, and had good reason to be optimistic that the VW vote would be a breakthrough.
Perhaps out of deference to its powerful unions back home in Germany, the company let the UAW campaign inside its plant—a courtesy that it denied to anti-union activists.
Both VW and the UAW had supported the creation of a German-style works council, a committee of managers and workers that makes some decisions on how a plant is run.
It will be small consolation to the UAW that the company says it will still pursue this—although it is unclear whether, under American law, a factory can have a works council without an outside trade union to represent the employees.
The defeat means that the UAW's membership, having fallen from over1.5min 1979 to less than 400,000 today, is set to continue its declining trend. American-owned car firms have recently been rehiring at their unionised plants, as sales of vehicles have picked up, but as at other manufacturers, automation will continue reducing the need for human workers.
Although union membership has held steady in America's public sector, in private businesses it has fallen sharply since official figures were first kept in the early 1980s.
Last year the number of union members grew and the overall rate of unionisation held steady at 11.3% of America's workforce thanks to job growth at unionised manufacturers and construction firms.
But it was noticeable that in one fast-growing industry—mining, oil and gas—the rate of unionisation fell from 7.2% to 5.4%: most new jobs were non-union.
Despite last year's upturn in membership, modern manufacturing is not fertile ground for union recruiters.
The remaining jobs in factories are typically skilled and well-paid.
Employees struggle to see what more they will get in return for paying union dues.
Production and maintenance workers at VW's Chattanooga plant earn $20-30 an hour, plus bonuses and other benefits, making it one of the most rewarding places to work in a state where the cost of living is low.
To make things tougher still for the unions, employment is growing fastest in parts of the country that have not traditionally been bastions of trade unionism.
Even in the UAW's heartland, Michigan, the rate of union membership in all types of workplace fell from 16.6% to 16.3% last year, despite overall job growth.
Richard Freeman, a labour economist at Harvard, has found that union membership tends to grow in short, sharp spurts; otherwise it tends to wither.
Mr Freeman says this means that unions must therefore “latch on to a crisis period when people are upset”.
But of course,Americahas just gone through such a period, and union membership barely budged.
The parts of the American private sector where trade unionism is showing signs of life are those where the working conditions are toughest.
The Service Employees International Union, for instance, has agitated on behalf of non-unionised workers at fast-food restaurants and Walmart shops, without pressing them to join the union.
Workers in car factories may not want to sign up, but the UAW has recruited casino dealers, health-care workers, postdoctoral researchers and graduate-student teaching assistants.
“The role of the labour movement has to be about more than representing their current membership. They have to be responsive to all excluded workers,” says Jeffrey Grabelsky, an industrial-relations expert at Cornell University.
康奈尔大学的劳资关系专家Jeffrey Grabelsky 说：“工人运动的角色已经不只是代表他们当前的成员身份”。
Newer labour organisations seem to understand this better than older ones.
The National Domestic Workers Alliance has won much support among people who work in other people's homes, such as those providing care to the elderly.
The Freelancers Union has also boomed, by providing temporary workers with benefits such as health insurance and financial services while avoiding traditional trade-union politicking.
Indeed, Sara Horowitz, the union's founder, even moonlights as deputy chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which could not be farther from the picket line.
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