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  • What Unions No Longer Do by Jake Rosenfeld
  • John Peters
Jake Rosenfeld, What Unions No Longer Do (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2014)

Over the past few decades, unions have been in decline and governments throughout the advanced capital world have removed constraints on firms by deregulating labour law and collective regulation. Much scholarship and activist debate has focused on why this has been happening but few have studied the political and economic consequences of deunionization and what it means for working people and democracy. Jake Rosenfeld takes on this challenge in What Unions No Longer Do.

Rosenfeld argues that the American labour movement, once so central to politics and egalitarian public policies, is now fundamentally in decline. Unions that used to organize millions of workers – including African Americans, Hispanics, and immigrants – currently struggle to certify new workers. Unions that previously boosted the wages of union and non-union workers alike can, at best, hold the line for their dwindling members. Unions that in years past had a political voice that could not be ignored on issues of economic and social justice are now written off as special interest groups by public officials more concerned with the preferences of business and the rich.

What Unions No Longer Do demonstrates the costs of such developments: ever higher inequality, growing numbers of low-wage jobs, and a politics that continually benefits the rich and employers at the expense of the vast majority of working Americans. Given how the United States is often the political bellwether for Canada and Western Europe, these are important arguments that all social scientists should pay attention to.

In making these arguments, Rosenfeld adds substantially to recent literature that traces how and why government policy on redistribution and labour markets have been reformed to the advantage of the few. As scholars such as Jacob Hacker, Paul Pierson, Joseph Stiglitz, and Theda Skocpol, among others, have shown, labour policies in the United States today are regularly undermined by the deliberate efforts of firms to convince policymakers to deregulate, avoid updating policy, or simply keep labour market issues off the agenda. Researchers in this vein explain these outcomes in terms of how the economic wealth of business and Wall Street has been translated into durable political resources and unprecedented access to policymakers that refocuses the energies of political parties and governments alike.

In contrast, Rosenfeld focuses in far greater depth on the many consequences of organized labour decline for American political economy. What is happening to unions, he argues, is fundamental to understanding recent patterns of wage [End Page 306] stagnation and job insecurity, as well as to how American democracy is fundamentally closing itself off from the voice of workers.

Combining in-depth statistical analysis with a sharp eye to the big historical changes over the past century, Rosenfeld shows, for example, how the growth of public sector unions and their growing role inside the labour movement have not resulted in better wages in other non-union sectors, nor has it had much of an impact in mobilizing voters to participate in progressive politics. In large part, this is because public sector unions are limited by the whims, budgetary constraints, and partisan composition of governments. But he also argues that it is because public sector workers and their organisations face innumerable difficulties in overcoming the fragmenting effects of race, education, and occupation, all of which limit the organizing and mobilizing potential of the public sector for a more encompassing labour movement.

Similarly, Rosenfeld dissects the numerous consequences of declining militancy, fewer strikes and a plummeting number of work stoppages. Where once strikes were frequent, large, and energizing throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, unions have now almost entirely backed away from striking, using strikes only as a last resort in the most desperate of circumstances. This is not only because employers increasingly easy resort to hiring replacements and moving firms to non-union facilities in the aftermath of a strike. Rosenfeld also attributes the declining strike rate to governments’ failure to prohibit replacement workers and their granting of injunctions forcing workers to return to their jobs. What this has meant for unions is ever more concessions, wage...


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pp. 306-308
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