Why Americans Like Unions
More Than Canadians Do
But Join Much Less
by Seymour Martin Lipset and Noah M. Meltz,
with Rafael Gomez and Ivan Katchanovski
ILR Press, 2004 208 pp $32.50
Declining union membership has been a major factor in the increase in economic inequality in the United States. In 1958, unions represented a third of the workforce. By 2003, their share had fallen to just 12.9 percent. With membership low and falling, unions have had less and less ability to set industry-wide wage and benefit levels, let alone norms for the economy as a whole, which for a brief period after World War II they could do. The income gap between workers and top managers grows ever wider, company-financed health insurance and pensions become less common and less generous, and the capacity of workers to challenge supervisors diminishes as collective organization shrivels. Although unions still have considerable power in the electoral arena, rarely can they mobilize it to set the social agenda or win new benefits for working people. Instead, they repeatedly fight defensive struggles to defeat anti-union candidates or block anti-union legislation.
This familiar and grim picture has sparked intense debate among union activists about how to reverse the membership decline and among academics about what has caused it. Looking abroad provides some clues. Though union membership has declined in most industrialized countries, the United States is an outlier, with a union density well below that in other developed countries (with the exception of France, where unions have proportionately even fewer members, but exert much greater economic and political power). Canada offers a particularly intriguing comparison, because at least superficially it so resembles the United States, yet it differs radically in its pattern of union membership. In 1963, 29 percent of the workers in each country carried a union card, but thereafter the percentage in the United States plunged, while in Canada it grew, exceeding 38 percent in the mid-1980s before dropping to 30 percent in 2001.
A small academic industry has grown up to try to explain why union density north of the U.S.-Canadian border is more than double that to the south. The best-known practitioner of cross-border comparison has been veteran sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, who has been studying, for two decades, the differences between Canada and the United States, not only in the realm of labor but more broadly in their social values and political institutions. Lipset has attributed the differences between the countries to different value systems that emerged from different histories in the Age of Revolution. For Lipset, the key to understanding the United States, including the weakness of its labor movement, lies in the heritage of its revolution, which he sees as quintessentially liberal, w...
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