Friday, November 30, 2007
Frymer, Black and Blue
Paul Frymer's Black and Blue: African Amerians, the Labor Movement, and the Decline of the Democratic Party is an exceptional study of the relationships between the civil rights and labor movements during the second half of the twentieth century. Professor Frymer of the University of California, Santa Cruz, challenges both the common view in political science that courts cannot bring about social change, and the common view in law that courts are desirable agents for social change. The result is a far more nuanced understanding of the role of courts in American political and constitutional development. Judicial decisions matter, but they matter for reasons that confound scholars and policy activists. The book also tackles important problems in the politics of race. Race matters Professor Frymer concludes (not exactly a surprise so far), but race matters as a political phenomenon intertwined with constitutional institutions, and not simply as bad thoughts. Some institutions are structured in ways that privilege racism, others in ways that promote liberal equality. The American labor regime, alas, too often had the former characteristics.
My immediate reaction here is skepticism. I've seen some persuasive data showing that whites in the North vote Democratic at essentially the same rate as they did 50 or 60 years ago. What has changed is that whites in the South have left the Democratic party. Since unions pretty much didn't exist in the South in the 40s, 50s, and early 60s, I find it hard to attribute the move of the Solid South to racially integrated unions (as opposed to race issues generally).
Moreover, many economists have discussed the decline of unionism, but they attribute it to economic factors, including free market ideology and conservative governance, not to racial politics (though, of course, those are always in the background of conservative politics).
"Thus, while unions are presently integrated and some are now almost completely non-white"
This is either badly phrased, or betrays a rather peculiar understanding of what constitutes "integrated".
I think we can attribute a large part of the decline of unionism to the fact that the union movement succeeded: It changed the behavior of management in a positive way, even in industries which are not unionized.
Since being a member of a union has a number of serious downsides, (Dues, wages lost to strikes, your money being diverted to politics you disagree with...) to the extent that workers can secure much of the advantage of being unionized merely by having the threat of unionization looming in the background, why would they want to go ahead and unionize?
Management has learned that it's worth treating your workers well, to keep them from wanting to unionize. Given the costs to workers of unionism, this isn't as well as they might get treated with a union, but taking into account those costs, it's not a bad place for workers or management to be.
Barring legal intervention to bolster or attack unions, we should expect the union movement to decline until it's just barely strong enough to keep the threat plausible, and then stay there.
While racism still exists in unions as it does in all institutions, unions -- from locals to nationals -- are some of the most highly integrated bodies in the U.S. Also, blacks today are union members in a greater percentage than they are members of the population.
I haven't read Frymer, and it sounds interesting, but my initial reaction is similar to that of Mark Field.
As to Brett's point that unions are less attractive because of the gains unions have made is undercut by several factors.
First, there still is a significant wage premium for joining unions (it greatly exceeds the cost of dues). And there are other significant benefits to joining a union: just cause discharge protection, and some form of democratic input into your working life.
Second, in the *public* sector, union density rates are nearly 40% -- demonstrating that workers in the U.S. really do want to join unions (unless you believe secretaries, janitors, etc. in the public sector are entirely different types of people than those who do those jobs in the private sector).
Again, I think Mark Field is correct in identifying the more likely causes of declines in union rates in the private sector. I would really stress here the role of extremely aggressive anti-union tactics, which routinely include explicitly illegal tactics, facilitated by the startlingly trivial remedies for employer violations of National Labor Relations Act.
Js, the high rate of unionism in the public sector comes under that "legal interventions" catagory: Given that one of the two major parties is allied with the union movement, and much of the time is playing the part of management, why wouldn't you expect them to be pushing workers to unionize, and thus entrench their own allies?Post a Comment
Indeed, there's a substantial wage premium for workers who unionize and don't subsequently lose their jobs. Employees looking at unionization from the vantage of the not yet unionized have to care a great deal that unionizing will result in fewer better paid workers: They've got no guarantee at all that they'll be among the still employed.