All Commentary
Wednesday, May 1, 1963

The Real Weakness of Unions

Mr. Barger is a public relations representative in Jackson, Michigan.

Trade unions are in trouble. Not serious trouble, yet. But clouds are spreading over the union move­ment, and it seems to be losing its place in the public favor. There are loud clamors for putting stricter government curbs on unions and perhaps revoking their longtime immunity from antitrust laws.’ Meanwhile, unions are steadily losing their membership in key industries. They are also making only token progress in their struggle to organize the growing work force of white collar workers and other potential mem­bers such as teachers and the tex­tile workers of the South. And the situation is worsening.

The press is taking note of this. Last September, an ordinarily pro-union journal of opinion featured an article entitled “Labor’s Ebbing Strength.”2 The story had a de­cidedly pessimistic tone. The ink was hardly dry on this one before a leading general magazine pub­lished a story under the heading, “Is Labor on the Skids?”3 Not long after that another large cir­culation periodical jumped on the same bandwagon in a two-part series that began by asking, “Has Success Spoiled Big Labor?”4

The thread of reality weaving through all these stories is that trade-unionism is in a phase of steady retreat. “Union member­ship, continuing its descending curve, has shrunk to new lows for the last twenty-five years; still worse, perhaps, the enlistment of new members has ground to a frustrated halt on almost all fronts,” said one writer.5 And the facts confirm this. The United Auto Workers, for example, has skidded from a membership strength of 1,418,000 in 1953 to 1,136,000 in 1960. The Steel­workers, despite their strategic hold on the nation’s economy, fell by 10 per cent between 1956 and 1960. Other big losers have been the Machinists (95,000 members in two years!), the two big textile unions (289,000 in the past dec­ade), municipal transportation employees (75,000 gone), and the Carpenters (104,000 in six years). And these losses in membership don’t tell all the story. There is also the significant fact that or­ganized labor is slipping in rela­tion to the total labor force. In 1954 it was 35.1 per cent of the total nonfarm work force, but by 1960 it had dropped to 32.1 per cent.6

Still, union power is an awe­some force to be reckoned with in the U.S. economy. It is still possi­ble for a handful of striking em­ployees to tie up an entire indus­try, and one union was able to put the newspapers in New York City out of business for an unprece­dented length of time. Labor leaders still dominate the scene, and a former labor union counsel is now seated on the U.S. Supreme Court. In some ways, unions seem stronger than ever. But is there a hidden weakness in union power that may become more evident in the years immediately ahead?

Compulsion and Intervention

There is. Stated briefly, that weakness is an excessive reliance on compulsory practices and other federal interventionism. That is to say, the very policies that brought unions to great heights of power may now be working in subtle ways to destroy them. Yet labor leaders cannot abandon these poli­cies, for the entire system of trade-unionism in the United States has become dependent on them. If anything, the present de­cline in unionism may even trig­ger demands for more compulsion and interventionism, not less. When that happens, ironically enough, labor leaders will them­selves be filling the same reaction­ary role that they so eagerly forced on businessmen in the past. It will then be the labor leader, not the businessman, who yearns for a return to previous condi­tions.

At first glance, however, it is difficult to see the weaknesses in­volved in the compulsory approach. It would seem to be strength that enables organized labor to develop tremendous political power and force the passage of legislation favorable to union interests. It would also seem to be strength when most of the heavy manufac­turing industries and all the trans­portation and communication sys­tems are organized under union shop agreements, as they now are. It appears to be strength to have millions of workers paying their dues under the check-off system and actually being signed up for union membership by company personnel departments. But in all these things there is weakness, and it must have its day, too.

Wagner Act Concessions

It is often forgotten today that unions did not come to power by conventional means—i.e., by com­peting for the loyalty and support of workers and winning bargain­ing rights under free market con­ditions even in the face of stub­born employer resistance. The tre­mendous upsurge in unionism came only after 1935, when Con­gress passed the Wagner Act and effectively stripped employers of the means to resist union activity. “The justification for this position was that only through government support could labor meet manage­ment on anything like equal terms in our industrialized society, and that the time had come when the scales, always so heavily weighted in favor of industry, should be redressed in favor of the workers. Every unfair labor practice banned in the Wagner Act applied to employers and it imposed no restraints whatsoever on the unions.”’

The result of tipping the scales in favor of the unions was that union membership tripled in the late 1930′s. Under the watchful eye of the National Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB), companies were prevented from issuing anti­union propaganda, hiring labor spies, establishing company unions, or interfering with picket­ing. Blacklisting and “yellow dog” contracts were outlawed. A revolu­tion in labor relations was under­way, and significantly the new con­ditions gave a powerful boost to John L. Lewis and the C.I.O., which in a whirlwind organiza­tion period of only a few years emerged as an aggressive, central­ized union with strong vested in­terests in national politics.

A.F.L. vs. C.I.O.

From the very start, there were strong differences between the old-line union officials like the A.F. of L.’s William Green and the dy­namic Mr. Lewis. “Lewis and Green are both for the New Deal,” wrote H. L. Mencken in September 1936, “but it is easy to see that the New Deal wizards favor Lewis as against Green. He is, in­deed, far more their kind of man. Green is a respectable Baptist, Odd Fellow, and Elk, and if he had been born on the other side of the street he might have turned out a bank cashier. or a college presi­dent. But Lewis is essentially a revolutionist.”8 (Italics added).

In one year, Lewis’ C.I.O. was able to pass in membership figures all that Samuel Gompers’ A.F. of L. was able to build in 40 years! But, as Lester Velie has noted, “the difference… was that Lewis had the government with him while Gompers had the govern­ment against him.”9

A Federal Responsibility

The revolution wrought by John L. Lewis and the New Deal made a complete change in traditional labor relations. The most radical change was that labor relations be­came a federal responsibility. Since then all other labor legisla­tion—i.e., the Taft-Hartley Act and the Landrum-Griffin Act—has been merely varying forms of federal intervention. Ironically, the pro­ponents of remedial legislation to discipline unions are actually arguing for more federal intervention, not less (a national Right-to-Work law, for example, would simply continue to strengthen government’s hand in labor affairs, and would probably put off the day when labor and managements can contract inde­pendently).

Having soared to power through the compulsory approach, union leaders were unable (or unwill­ing) to abandon it, or even to limit it. One of the sacred canons of union policy, for example, is the union shop, where all workers in a bargaining unit are compelled to belong to the union and pay dues. It is regarded as being nec­essary to union security, even though it does violence to the in­dividual’s freedom of choice and endorses a principle that we would be bound to reject in many other matters.¹º

Compulsory Membership for Those Who Won’t Join Voluntarily

But there are also boomerang effects in this kind of a situation. By demanding compulsory union membership, union leaders are in effect admitting that they can’t en­dure the presence of even small pockets of dissenters who don’t wish to embrace their program. They have admitted that their ability to persuade and attract workers into the movement is in­effective and must be backed by coercion to succeed. They have even admitted that unionism isn’t really as popular with workers as it is claimed to be, for what need would there be to compel a worker to join an association that he wishes to affiliate with anyhow?

That is, they are admitting weakness—the weakness of being unable to promote and maintain voluntary unionism. Even a warm ally of the union movement saw excessive reliance on compulsion as a sign of weakness: “The in­sistence on the part of some Amer­ican unions on the rule of the ‘union shop’ according to which the worker must become a mem­ber in good standing of a union in order to keep his job, is… more understandable as an indica­tion of organization weakness. A strong union movement does not need to be provided with such pressures.” This was writtenabout 20 years ago by Gunnar Myrdal, in some side observations on the labor movement in An American Dilemma, a massive study on the status of American Negroes) 1

In fairness to Myrdal, it should be noted that he apparently ap­proved of the provisions of the Wagner Act, and may have felt, as many did, that it “redressed the economic imbalance which was previously on the side of em­ployers.” What he and others evi­dently did not see was that unions were practically invited to press for the “union shop” under the Wagner Act.’ Weakness or not, union leaders have seized the con­cept of the “union shop” as the fastest and most thorough method of concentrating power and get­ting membership dues.

The compulsory approach has also been applied to managements. Using their political power, trade unions are openly seeking to alter the political climate to the dis­advantage of companies and to the immediate advantage of unions. (This is, of course, a game that many other organized pressure groups also like to play). Only recently Walter Reuther urged that the President be given power to seize industries and their profits when an employer balks at effec­tive bargaining and creates a na­tional emergency.” Unions are also heavily committed to mini­mum wage legislation, legislation to prohibit employers from mov­ing to other regions, and similar compulsory tactics.

A Long-Run Liability

In relying on government-spon­sored advantage, trade unions are not unlike industries that seek spe­cial protection in the form of tariff or subsidy. While the legis­lation may seem to protect the industry at a certain stage, it must someday become a liability to the very group it is trying to protect, for it leaves them perpetually dependent on the tariff or the subsidy, and unprepared for the voluntary approach. Also, the advantages of special favors tend to disappear when other groups win the right to share them. Unions as a group have received special privileges from legislation. But now strong voices are de­manding that legislation be en­acted to curtail the privileges of unions. After that occurs, what will unions have to sustain them?

Well, certainly not the evangeli­cal zeal that it would take to re­cruit the millions of workers still outside the union fold. At some point in their history, unions lost this. Perhaps much of that loss occurred when it became policy to accept the compulsory approach instead of the voluntary one. In the long run this may certainly prove to be a grave weakness of unions.


1 The traditional union immunity from antitrust is said to have begun with the passing of the Clayton Act in 1914.

2 By George Kirstein in The Nation, September 1, 1962, p. 86.

3 By Thomas B. Morgan, in Look, Sep­tember 11, 1962, p. 69.

4 By Harold H. Martin, in The Satur­day Evening Post, December 8, 1962, p. 75.

5 George Kirstein, op. cit.

6 Harold H. Martin, op. cit. Foster Rhea Dulles, Labor in Amer­ica (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Com­pany, 1960).

s From H. L. Mencken on Politics, edited by Malcolm Moos (New York: Vintage Books, 1960).

9 Lester Velie, Labor U.S.A. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959). Mr. Velie also noted that this is something Lewis won’t concede to this day!

10 It should be remembered that fed­eral intervention and compulsion of the individual worker are often one and the same thing. The union shop is an arbi­trary arrangement, frequently brought about when a majority of employees in a bargaining unit vote under an NLRB election to have a union certified as their bargaining agent. The dissenting em­ployees are then automatically forced to join the union as a condition of employ­ment (except, of course, in the states where Right-to-Work laws supersede the federal statute). Without the NLRB, dis­senting workers would not have to join the union unless they chose to.

11 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1944).

12 Under the Wagner Act the “union shop” existed in a more drastic form called the “closed shop.” The latter was outlawed by the Taft-Hartley Act. Both forms involve compulsory membership.

13 According to an Associated Press dispatch of February 1, 1963.



Ideas on Liberty

The Voluntary Way

No lasting gain has ever come from compulsion. If we seek to force, we but tear apart that which, united, is invincible. There is no way whereby our labor movement may be assured sus­tained progress in determining its policies and its plans other than sincere democratic deliberation until a unanimous decision is reached. This may seem a cumbrous, slow method to the im­patient, but the impatient are more concerned for immediate triumph than for the education of constructive development.

SAMUEL GOMPERS, From final presidential address to AFL Convention, El Paso, Texas, 1924

  • Melvin D. Barger is a retired corporate public relations representative and writer who lives in Toledo, Ohio. He has been a contributor to The Freeman since 1961.