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Originally published Wednesday, August 10, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

The steady decline of private-sector unions

In 1945, more than 35 percent of private-sector workers in America belonged to unions. Here, the proportion was higher. In 1939, the Saturday...

In 1945, more than 35 percent of private-sector workers in America belonged to unions. Here, the proportion was higher. In 1939, the Saturday Evening Post sent a correspondent to Seattle to interview Dave Beck, the Teamster leader. The magazine gave no statistics, but it called Seattle "the perfect closed-shop town."

I have no statistics for the city, but statewide, private-sector union membership has declined to 13.2 percent. Nationwide, it has fallen to just 7.9 percent, which may be the lowest proportion in 90 years.

The public sector is another story. There, unions act as bargaining agents, lobbyists, political contributors and elections staff rolled into one. There, union membership is 36 percent nationally and is stable. But in the private sector, unions' rise in the first half of the 20th century was matched by a decline in the last half.

The labor union is an institution that has failed to replicate itself. Old companies shrink, new ones grow, and the new ones — the Microsofts, Starbucks, Amazons — are mostly union-free. The employees could have unions if they pushed for them, but they don't. It is the same in the car industry: General Motors, Ford and Chrysler still have the unions that organized them in 1937 and 1941, but the U.S. plants of Honda, Nissan, BMW, et al., are open shops.

Zogby International recently did a poll of working Americans. Only 35 percent of those not in a union would support one in their own shop, but 56 percent would not.

Those proportions would have been different 50 or 100 years ago. Since then, the way companies are managed has changed. Here and there, employees may still be treated like pieces of furniture, but there is less profit in it, and smart companies don't do it. Most workers told Zogby that they think their employer cares for them.

Then there is a matter of ideology. Many of the union pioneers — Eugene Debs, Philip Randolph, Harry Bridges — were socialists, back when socialism had not been tried in many places. That experiment has now been conducted, and the results are in. There is still a leftward flavor in the union movement, but it doesn't sell as well. Modern leftism tends to be green.

Also, Americans are more educated than their grandparents, more connected to information, more mobile, and less worried about economic risk. Americans have always tended toward individualism, toward "doing our own thing," and one of those things is to make our own choices. Unionism seeks unanimity, which it calls solidarity.

In the '90s, I was in a group interview with John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, and activists who were organizing apple packers in Wenatchee. Sweeney was stressing the need of these workers, many of them uneducated Mexicans, to have a bargaining agent and a contract, and stressing also that the representation vote was an exercise in democracy.

As he spoke, two thoughts came to mind: first, that I was not very much like those apple packers; and second, that I had never had a vote like they were having. The union I was in had that vote in 1936. A representation vote is required only once, and binds that group until 30 percent of the workers file a petition for another election — which hadn't happened in 60 years.

I had no beef with the goals of my union; I even represented it for a while on a pension board. But it was an old institution and not terribly effective. Most of the younger workers didn't get involved in it.

And here, I thought, was an unappreciated problem for unions. Their movement requires fervor, the willingness to fight. It requires an enemy, and a sense of injury. Some people feel that and some don't. These days, more don't, and the reach of private-sector unions declines.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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