SINCE the middle of the last century, the American labor movement has been in steady decline. In the early 1950s, around one-third of the United States' total labor force was unionized. Today, just one-tenth remains so. Unionization of the private sector is even lower, at five percent. Over the last few decades, unions' influence has waned and workers' collective voice in the political process has weakened. Partly as a result, wages have stagnated and income inequality has increased.

The decline of American unions was not preordained. The modern labor movement first emerged in response to the Great Depression, when fledgling workers' organizations and established unions led mass protests against unemployment and the failures of American capitalism. Tumultuous strikes rocked the heartland from the coalfields of Pennsylvania to the factories of Michigan. In those days, "anybody struck," as the labor historian Irving Bernstein once observed. "It was the fashion." In 1935, a

This article is part of our premium archives.

To continue reading and get full access to our entire archive, you must subscribe.

Subscribe
  • BRUCE WESTERN is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. JAKE ROSENFELD is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington.
  • More By Bruce Western
  • More By Jake Rosenfeld