Many people this week have made the obvious observation that these are difficult days for labor unions. But that's a question of group dynamics – how one group like a union loses clout and others such as businesses therefore gain more power. Not much has been said about an equally obvious underlying issue: What exactly does this mean for individual workers?
The climactic battle came Tuesday, when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker easily won a recall battle instigated by vengeful public employee unions, whose collective bargaining power he had largely demolished. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels did that here in his very first year in office, quietly, without a lot of overt protest. It was a little more contentious this year, when he supported the eventually successful right-to-work legislation that eliminates compulsory union membership. Public employee pension programs – long seen as a drag on stressed state budgets – took a big hit from voters in California this week.
These losses are just adding to the diminishment of unions that has been going on for decades. Union membership in the United States was more than 40 percent in the 1950s and 11.8 percent last year. If it weren't for the public sector unions, there'd hardly be a movement at all.
The average worker has less chance to be represented by a group at the same time when employer-employee relationships are changing drastically. No longer is there lifelong loyalty to one company or a company's long-term commitment to a “family of workers.” People change jobs with dizzying frequency, and companies drop workers with alarming indifference.
We are, increasingly, on our own.
The prospect is both exhilarating and terrifying.