The Labor Movement's Perception of Its Decline

Officials in the organized labor movement consistently state that the two greatest causes for the continuing decline in union membership are the anti-union attitudes of employers and weaknesses in the National Labor Relations Act that make employee organizing difficult and provide ineffective remedies for employer labor law violations. Close scrutiny reveals, however, that the principal cause of labor union decline is not so much employer attitudes or the country's labor laws, but rather a lack of worker support for unions.

It is true that there are anti-union employers, but they represent a small component of the overall business community. Legal enforcement mechanisms are effective at catching these labor law violators and remedying any unlawful actions that injure individual workers, and unions will continue to target employers whose actions and policies cause dissatisfaction among their employees.

Most employers, however, obey the law and prefer to operate directly with their employees, without an intermediary. Unionism is a choice for employees, not employers, and employers today are increasingly sophisticated in their knowledge of the law and labor relations practices. The prevailing pro-employee attitude in American workplaces is driven largely by the marketplace as employers compete to recruit and retain good employees.

Unions may complain about this dynamic, but there is little they can do about it. To the extent that employers' pro-employee human resource programs discourage unionism, it is to the direct betterment of employees. "Old-school" unions are left with the shopworn argument that the labor laws are so weak that they are at a competitive disadvantage in enlisting new members. Consequently, the labor movement's central concern today revolves around achieving greater institutional and legal protections of its interests. Devoting as it does disproportionate resources and attention to this issue will surely accelerate Big Labor's decline.