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If Unions Died Out, Could Anything Replace Them?

Settle in for a good old policy debate.

In a Feb. 19 BloombergView op-ed, contributor Evan Soltas, also a contributor to Washington Post's Wonkblog, assessed the future of unions, and found it to be dubious. His central question, though, is about whether the good work they have done can be replicated in the future. Soltas frames his argument around the recent decision of workers at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., not to unionize.

Unions can no longer solve labor's woes. That's not terrible, because the way unions gave workers power created its own problems. Yet the U.S. will be much worse off without labor unions if it doesn't replace what they once did.

Soltas lands at the conclusion that while unions may not be the best thing for the overall economy, the good work they have done must be continued should the organizations actually falter. He suggests using federal economic policy to drive full employment, which would give workers more leverage. (It's easier to argue with the boss when you both know you're near irreplaceable.)

Soltas' article got under the skin of Michael Wasser, senior policy analyst with the workers' rights group Jobs With Justice, who responded that workers haven't given up on unions and that the organizations are still desperately needed:

It is naïve to think that unions simply have run their course. Our broken labor law makes it incredibly difficult for workers to form unions. Without any real penalties to fear, employers have an economic incentive to violate federal labor law.

Wasser's argument rests on the important role that unions play as structural entities; he contends that simply giving workers input doesn't guarantee success even close to the level of that achieved by unions.

(Soltas and Wasser each made another round of arguments. Soltas' is here. Wasser's is appended to his original.)

In his critique, Wasser emphasizes that plenty of workers still want to unionize, but can't because of recalcitrant employers and underwhelming federal assistance. This doesn't actually undercut Soltas' argument, though; it's akin to saying that things could be a lot better for unions given entirely different circumstances. There might still be a major urge to organize, but if other forces continue to obstruct, unions will still collapse.

And that's more or less what Kevin Drum, of Mother Jones, said, when he got involved this morning:

The decline of labor is simply a fact at this point, and there's not much point in sticking our heads in the sand and pretending we can turn this around in any serious, sustained way. Liberals should continue to support the cause of labor whenever and wherever we can, but we should also understand that our most urgent task is figuring out how to replace what they used to do. That's not something we've made much progress on.

Available numbers from education's biggest union, the National Education Association, would suggest that pessimism about a unionized future has some merit. Membership in that organization has declined 10 percent over the past four years, and its finances have taken some hits.

I think a progressive argument would be that, in a more reliable world, government would be a safeguard against employer malpractice, and able to utilize the levers of policy to improve worker conditions. But government priorities change every two years at the federal level, and state and local politics aren't necessarily able to help workers either.

To the extent that media and the Internet involve themselves in local affairs, they have some influence. But within a district itself, does anything compare to a union?

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