Labor’s clout is in steep decline in the Middle West. In a move that was unimaginable just ten years ago, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed a pair of “right-to-work” bills into law, dealing a serious blow to unions in one of the states that gave birth to the modern labor movement in America. The Wall Street Journal:
Gov. Snyder’s willingness to sign the legislation—a reversal of his previous position that right to work was a divisive issue that he would prefer to avoid—highlights the diminution of union clout both in Michigan and nationally.
The UAW once had more than one million members in the U.S., and as recently as 2004 had 654,000 active members. Now, after years of cuts by Detroit’s big auto makers and their parts makers, the UAW’s national membership is down to roughly 380,000 members, according to Labor Department filings. In Michigan, about 17.5% of workers were union members in 2011, according to Labor Department figures.
Besides the realities of declining union membership, this development more broadly suggests deep splits and ambivalence in American politics: At the national level, Democrats are running strong, but in many states something different is happening.
Michigan was long seen as a great example of the blue social model. The high wage, unionized automobile industry supported the state economy and promoted the development of a mass blue collar middle class. It was a great social achievement, and Americans were not wrong to love it, but it has been in gradual yet inexorable decline for more than a generation.
Today’s blue model liberals face a challenge. Can they find a path that actually restores states like Michigan and cities like Detroit to the kind of health they knew back when the blue model actually worked?
Red state conservatives, for their part, have yet to show that they can deliver something better than the mere destruction of the blue system: an alternative way to raise living standards and generate an acceptable basic level of personal security for ordinary workers in the American economy.
Voters seem to understand that both alternatives on offer are deeply flawed. The future of American politics will neither be blue or red as they are understood today; there are new solutions and new methods out there that can address many social issues that engage blue concern but getting there involves the creative destruction of many of the institutions and programs that blues have come to see as ends rather than means.
Regardless, it remains to be seen whether Michigan voters will keep the GOP in power in the aftermath of these laws. If they do, it will be a sign that Fordism has suffered a mortal wound in the state where it was born. Labor needs representation and many of the values that drew millions of working Americans into the labor movement endure. But few American institutions are as ill suited to the 21st century or have proved so inept at reorganization and reform as the unions.
Labor is so enamored of its glorious past that it has failed to respond to the challenges of the future. The price for this failure is already high, and it is likely to climb.