The state of organized labor: ‘Joe Lunchbucket’ becomes ‘Chris Briefcase’

Jack Fiorito

Labor unions are down, but they’re not necessarily out. That’s the verdict of Jack Fiorito, a professor of management in the Florida State University College of Business. Fiorito has analyzed various changes in the marketplace, the workplace and the political realm that have challenged organized labor in a new paper, "The State of the Unions in the United States," which will be published in the Winter 2007 issue of the Journal of Labor Research.

In 2005, U.S. labor unions made headlines for a pair of events that highlighted the labor movement’s struggle to stem decades of decline and lost influence. In July of that year, four of the nation’s largest unions split away from the AFL-CIO, a voluntary federation of nearly five dozen national and international unions.

The following September, a new group, the Change to Win Federation, was founded by seven unions and 6 million workers who were "devoted to building a movement of working people." Observers were left to wonder what was going on and what these events said about the "state of the unions" in the United States.

"Labor unions have long been an integral part of the American workplace and political landscape, but major structural changes in our country over the past quarter-century have radically altered the playing field," Fiorito said.

The stereotypical image of a U.S. union member in 1980 was that of a blue-collar, middle-aged white male employed in manufacturing, construction or transportation and residing in the Northeast, the Great Lakes region or on the West Coast. However, that image needs updating, Fiorito said.

"In 2007, the typical union member is more likely to be Hispanic or Asian-American, a bit older, and more likely to reside in the South," he said. "All of these reflect more general changes in our country. The most dramatic change, however, is that the typical 2007 union member is considerably more likely to be a female, a professional or manager, or a public-sector worker, and far less likely to work in manufacturing. These days, ‘Joe Lunch Bucket’ is increasingly likely to be ‘Chris Briefcase.’"

In his paper, Fiorito shows how increased global competition and domestic deregulation, among other economic factors, combined to provide important forces for change in collective bargaining and unions. The year 1980 also marked the beginning of a conservative turn in attitudes and government, starting with the election of Ronald Reagan to the White House. With the exception of the Clinton era, unions have faced a more hostile federal government and ideological climate than at any time since the 19th century.

"The effects of all these societal shifts have been devastating to unions," Fiorito said. "Although union membership began a long-term decline as early as 1955, when unions represented roughly one-third of the U.S. work force, the decline accelerated dramatically in the early 1980s. Somewhat belated union responses slowed the decline and perhaps even stabilized union membership by the late 1990s—but at less than one-seventh of the work force, and only one-twelfth among private-sector workers. Consequently, the state of the unions must be described as considerably weakened.

"There is little room to doubt that unions are ‘down,’" he said. "Whether they are ‘out’ is another matter. Despite abundant gloomy indicators on union vitality, there are signs of life and sources of hope for the future of U.S. unions."

It would be easy to predict a continued decline for organized labor, and that is indeed a likely scenario, Fiorito said. However, he points to other factors that suggest opportunities for union revitalization.

"Considering the environment—25-plus years of intensifying competitive pressures and a largely hostile political climate—the survival of the unions attests to strength and resilience," he said. "Further, a strong majority of the American public remains firm in its belief that workers should have a say about their jobs, and that the United States is better off with unions than without them. Unions still include more than 15 million members, and there are healthy, ongoing debates about future courses of action. Given the adversity unions overcame before, there are reasons to think that unions will find their way forward."