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A “Culture of Fear” Has Contributed to Declining Union Membership


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“Why are there no labor unions in America?”

So begins a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post by author and American history professor Kimberly Phillips-Fein. Phillips-Fein, who teaches at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, is quick to point out that millions of Americans do still belong to unions. But she highlights the fact that the size of the unionized work force in the U.S. has been in steady decline for the last four decades. She describes a history of union-busting and corporate smear tactics that has left Americans with a distaste for unions and a feeling that the protection of workers rights through collective bargaining simply isn’t worth it:

History has shaped the landscape for any workers who might want to organize unions today. Because of the intensity of employer opposition, workers who seek to unionize risk polarizing their communities. They may be blamed for taking actions that could lead to their towns losing the company altogether; they may even be fired themselves in retaliation. Is it any wonder that many conclude unionization is not worth the effort? Is it surprising that, despite unionized workers earning higher wages than nonunion workers and enjoying a measure of protection on the job, many consider it easier to find some way to make do and get by rather than take a leap of faith and organize?

Phillips-Fein describes a corporate and political climate in which employers moved their companies out of union strongholds, and eventually out of the country altogether:

In the South, segregationists and businessmen worked together to resist unions. In the Southwest, civic boosters sold their cities as alternatives to the high-wage Northeast and Midwest.

Over time, manufacturers closed their plants in such union strongholds as Detroit and Philadelphia, Camden and Trenton, relocating first to the American South and then eventually beyond U.S. borders — to Mexico, the Caribbean and farther overseas. The most successful companies in the burgeoning service sector — companies such as Walmart — built a fierce resistance against unionization into their business models from the start. At the same time, conservative politicians from the 1970s onward portrayed unions as inherently coercive, while liberals grew wary of passing legislation that could shift the playing field and make it easier for workers to unionize.

As Americans, explains Phillips-Fein, we believe in a certain kind of rugged individualism. But where labor unions are concerned, that belief has been leveraged against us to create a “culture of fear.” Not unexpectedly, it’s the working man who suffers.


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