Another Perspective

What Really Happened to Labor Unions

In two words: high tech.

By 2.17.05

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What's that gag from one of Shakespeare's sonnets? The poet nods and says, "'Tis, true, 'tis true," about some wheeze or other, and then disagrees? I read John Carlisle's "Shrinking Union Labels" on our site last week and agreed with every bit of it. Yes, unions are out of touch with their workers' politics, and yes, they're corrupt, and yes, the union bosses don't really care what the workers want anymore, and all the rest.

But something far more dramatic than that caused private sector union membership to shrink from a third of the U.S. work force in the 1950s to about 12 percent today. The high-tech revolution caught unions flat-footed. They just plain got out-accelerated. I saw it happen. I worked through the whole thing.

New York City in the 1960s was a paradise for aspiring artsy types like me. You could find ways to scam yourself into cheap rent-controlled digs, hang out with lots of like-minded folks, and, most important, find a ready supply of blissfully unchallenging part-time and temporary jobs to keep your bills paid and your dreams fueled. What's more, New York's offices were filled with artsy types just like me, doing the same thing. Keep yourself modestly presentable during business hours and you could do just about anything you wanted to.

I worked for Esquire and David Ogilvy. I worked for the Thomas Balcar Company (makers of a commercial strobe flash). I worked for R. H. Donnelly, typing stat sheets (everybody did, even Dustin Hoffman). I worked for a trucking company and for a mail-order bookseller.

To set some necessary background, New York itself was a city of shops and small businesses. "Big" meant Macy's and Bloomy's and some corporate headquarters. There were still "student passes" on airlines, and planes flew four-fifths empty most of the time.

Full-time workers put in 35-hour weeks. Everybody knew the 30-hour week was coming. We just knew it, that's all. Everybody got dozy -- employers, employees, unions, everybody.

WHEN OUT IN THE GARAGES OF AMERICA arose a clatter, but nobody snoozing in offices got up to see what was the matter. And before anybody knew it, full-fledged businesses sprang up built around another culture altogether. Forget the ties and the sportjackets, they worked all night, and they expected everybody else to do the same thing. By the time I turned around and needed to get another full-time job, at a high-tech advertising agency, the working hours were 8 to 5, and that only nominally; if you wanted to get anywhere, you had to show your spirit and show up by 7:30 and be prepared to stay till any hour at all.

Clerk-typist jobs, my old mainstay? Gone. Instead, you could get something called "data entry," a singularly unappealing gig. At the Squaw Valley Writer's Conference in 1982, perhaps a dozen manuscripts out of more than a hundred were printed on dot matrix printers, looking strange and off-putting. The next year, every manuscript had been produced on a computer and a printer. All those little things happening that fast meant something bigger happened even faster, virtually overnight.

Labor unions just plain missed it. Even if they hadn't missed it, what were they supposed to do? What -- or whom -- were you supposed to organize? A bunch of geeks in a warehouse mainlining Coca-Cola? Which were the real businesses and which were the pipe dreams? If Wall Street couldn't tell yet, and it couldn't, not really, how were unions supposed to figure it out? By the time some sort of manufacturing lines came into existence, those lines were already changing so fast, it was hard to tell the difference between labor and management. Now, of course, the mass jobs, the low-skill jobs, have migrated overseas, and they're just plain gone. Who wants guaranteed overtime? Everybody's got guaranteed overtime. It comes with the territory. Now you want stock options. Now you want career advances. Now you want to strike out and do it for yourself. Pension? Tell me another one. I've got a 401(k) and deferred comp. Job security? There's no such thing. Career types change jobs seven times in a lifetime nowadays.

Every other industrial revolution got absorbed into the existing American infrastructure. This one created its own.

Contrast the New York City of the 1960s, a city of shops and department stores and staid corporate headquarters, with the glossy globalized behemoths along the new Lexington Avenue. It's no surprise that labor unions have gone the way of haberdashers and tobacconists.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.