I agree with Dana Milbank that the labor situation in the United States is likely to foster a backlash from American voters:
Straws in the wind suggest a building backlash. On Tuesday, Los Angeles approved a $15 minimum wage, joining more than 17 states and several municipalities that have raised their minimum wages since 2013. Fast food and retail employers, under pressure, have announced increases in low wages covering some 2 million workers.
Organized labor, in retreat for decades, has been reasserting itself within the Democratic Party. This week, Philadelphia Democrats chose as their next mayor Jim Kenney, who had strong union backing in the primary (and faces only token opposition in November). The come-from-behind victory for Kenney, who had been outspent 3 to 1, follows similar long-shot wins for union-backed mayoral candidates in Boston and New York.
but I see few signs that the backlash will take the form he’s proposing, strengthening the hand of organized labor. If it is I just don’t see it.
Today about 11% of the American workforce is unionized, nearly a third of what it was in 1950. Of those roughly 35% are public sector employees while only 6% work in the private sector. Men are slightly more likely than women to be union members, blacks more likely than whites or Hispanics, and Baby Boomers significantly more likely than Millennials. A sixth of Baby Boomer workers are unionized; less than 5% of Millennials are.
The optimistic interpretation of that is that unions are due for a comeback; the pessimistic one is that they’re dying out. I think the latter interpretation is probably closer to the truth than the former.
It should be obvious that union membership has followed the fortunes of manufacturing. As the number of workers employed in manufacturing has declined, so has union membership. I believe that this is because the opportunities for effective labor action are much greater in high margin sectors with a high cost of entry dominated by a small number of companies, e.g. auto manufacturing, than they are in low margin sectors with low costs of entry and many small operators, e.g. food service. As the number of American workers in food service, hospitality, and retail increase, union strength is likely to diminish.
If Illinois is any gauge, the political winds are shifting but they’re not shifting in the direction of labor unions:
The legislature is scheduled to adjourn May 31, but Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno dismissed the deadline and said the package of bills Rauner presented to the General Assembly represents the bare minimum for the governor and GOP lawmakers to even begin to consider a tax hike to help close a gaping $6.6 billion hole for the budget year that starts July 1.
But many of Rauner’s proposals are politically toxic to Democratic lawmakers and their allies, including legislative term limits, changes in workers’ compensation, limitations on damage awards in civil lawsuits, and weakened union rights for municipal workers and teachers to bargain for pay.
Rauner also is proposing a property tax freeze that many mayors oppose and allowing cities to file for bankruptcy, which many unions see as an attempt to allow municipalities to get out of pension obligations.
As private sector workers find themselves paying ever more for the benefits and wages of public sector workers, benefits and wages far in excess of their own, it may be hard to engender sympathy for the plight of the poor public sector workers.