The (Un)Incredible, Shrinking Unions
March 2nd 2011 · 0 Comments
How Big Labor Became Little
ROBERT J. SAMUELSON | Investor’s Business Daily
March 1, 2011
What we are witnessing in Wisconsin and elsewhere is the death knell of Big Labor.
Once upon a time, most Americans could identify the head of the AFL-CIO. He was George Meany, the cigar-chomping ex-plumber who ran the union federation from 1955 to 1979. He was one of the nation’s great power brokers, much quoted and wooed by presidents.
It’s doubtful that as many Americans can name Meany’s present successor. (Answer: Richard Trumka, ex-head of the mine workers’ union.) The American labor movement has been in eclipse for decades, but public-sector unions were one of its few remaining bastions. Now, their power too is waning.
States and localities face long-term budget squeezes. Labor costs represent roughly half of their spending, notes the Cato Institute’s Chris Edwards. Pension and retiree health benefits are underfunded. Teachers’ unions are being pressed to weed out poor performers. All these unions are on the defensive. Critics are less Republicans than taxpayers and parents.
It’s hard for us to recall now how dominant unions were immediately after World War II. By the mid-1950s, unions represented 36% of private-sector workers. Most major industries were organized: railroads, coal, steel, autos, telephones, tires, airlines, trucking. Strikes in crucial industries constantly threatened to hobble the entire economy, though in practice, companies stockpiled steel and coal in advance of contract expirations, and Congress cut short railroad strikes.
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