The ILGWU fought for Workers Safety rights following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire - Image Time.com
According to the the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012 saw Union Membership fall to a 70 year low – or an 11.3% share of the American Workforce.(The Detroit Free Press). There are several factors that are mentioned in the comments section of the article that would point to a decline in union membership, such as a slow economy with loss of jobs, however not mentioned are other factors that have contributed to this decline.
The overzealous approach of unions and contract negotiations have cost unions job – the most recent example would be the Hostess Bakers Union fiasco. The Union pushed a strike at the company, which was experiencing financial difficulties, the company in turn closed its doors, as a direct result of the union demands and subsequent strike. (Huffington Post). The estimated jobs lost when Hostess closed: over 18,000.(KMOV) Hostess is not an isolated incident, but rather a practice of union demands in tough economic times, forcing plant closures and company bankruptcy filings.
The once great Northeast manufacturing hub is all but non-existent – as are the Unions that represented the workforce. One shining example is the now defunct International Ladies Garment Workers Unions, which found its beginnings in 1900 in New York City – and its strength in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1909 (Cornell) (See Dissertation by Dr. Frances Jensen The Triangle Fire and the limits of Progressivism”)(UMASS) This union initially fought for shorter workdays , child labor laws, and safety for workers, however, as time passed and the Federal Government enacted national laws preventing the aforementioned, the Union became obsolete. The ILGWU merged with a Food Association Union, whose sum total membership now stands at a little over 233,000 (uinonfacts.com).
The Private sector unions, have, at this juncture, gone the way of the Model T. There are the public sector unions that have the bulk of the membership. Those left, along with the public sector unions, are now at the brink due to economic factors.
Unions now exist as Lobbyists. Federal Safety and Fair Wage Laws made unions obsolete, they began to exist as a lobbying organization – collecting dues from employees to further political careers, where politicians supported by the unions, would be expected to further the unions interest. One may look at the bankrupt city of SanBernadino,CA (See Reuter’s article here), and the cycle of political payback to unions in the forms of pensions, etc., resulted in the City’s bankruptcy. What happens, therefore, in an economy where half of the nation’s workforce is on some form of government assistance and tax revenues to both Federal, State and city governments dwindles? There will doubtless be more bankruptcies and lost pensions and jobs as a result.
One might suggest that unions purpose to protect the factory worker was indeed noble in purpose, however, factory workers were generally under educated, new immigrants and in need of protection. No laws existed at that time to protect the American worker. One might also suggest that in cases where there workers lives are in danger, such as fire or public safety workers, and meat packing industries, unions may still have a place, however, those who work in safe environments, and are holding a four year or better degree, should, in reality, not be forced to join a union. Union membership should, then be an option, similar to any “Association”. This is evident in the States where “right to work” legislation has passed. It is not that the union is not allowed - it is that employees in these states have the option to join or not join a union. In today’s economy and division of political ideology within any given workforce, if given a choice, those who may want to keep the modest dues, fees, and other charges unions levy on members, to themselves. In addition, some may feel it a priority not to pay union dues, knowing that those dues will be used to support candidates that are contrary to their political ideology. The writing is on the wall, so to speak, for many unions, although still a powerful force in dealing with and supported by the Federal Government (see Grants by Federal Government to Unions in article at NILRR. Org), in the end the economic and political priorities of the individual worker, along with the loss of viability, will see this membership decline further.