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How the Loss of Union Power Has Hurt American Manufacturing

Want to make America great again and keep factories in the United States? Try strengthening labor unions.

That may seem counterintuitive, and certainly contrary to the direction the country has been moving in lately. But the reality is that when organized labor dug in its heels — as it did regularly in the United States until late in the 20th century — manufacturing companies thought twice about shutting a factory and transferring production to another country.

As union membership declined, however, so did the political leverage of once nationally-known leaders like John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers, and George Meany, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s first president. Not since the Nixon and Ford administrations in the 1970s has a union leader served in a president’s cabinet as secretary of labor, or in a similar post.

Nixon was hardly a union lover, but he recognized the still significant role of organized labor and lifted Peter J. Brennan, a house painter in his youth, from the leadership of the New York City Central Labor Council to the position of labor secretary. And Gerald Ford kept Mr. Brennan in place after Mr. Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974. Rather than oppose the Vietnam War, Mr. Brennan rallied blue-collar union workers to support it. Some even clashed in the streets with antiwar protesters, many of them students.

The United States’ involvement in Vietnam ended with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, and two years later Mr. Brennan returned to New York as president of the Construction Trades Council. After Mr. Brennan’s departure, President Ford appointed Bill Usery, a welder and machinist before becoming a top official in the International Association of Machinists, to be labor secretary. Mr. Usery remained in the post for six months, until President Jimmy Carter replaced him with F. Ray Marshall, a labor economist at the University of Texas in Austin.

From that day to this, no president of either party has appointed a union leader to a cabinet-level post. President Trump’s secretary of labor is R. Alexander Acosta, the dean of Florida International University College of Law and a former United States attorney.

The position was supposed to be organized labor’s means of exerting influence in the inner circle of any administration. Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, started the process by insisting that President William Howard Taft separate labor’s needs from those of commerce in general. President Taft finally split the Commerce Department in two in 1913, with one branch focused on working people and the other on commerce, broadly defined.

The new system gave organized labor a seat at the president’s elbow. Frances Perkins — the first female cabinet member in history — soon emerged as a powerful labor secretary in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cabinet during the Great Depression. She had worked for Mr. Roosevelt while he was governor of New York, and he brought her along when he became president in 1933.

Ms. Perkins remained in the post throughout his presidency, which ended with Mr. Roosevelt’s death in 1945, at the start of his fourth term. Social Security came into existence in 1935 partly through her efforts, as did 1938’s Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a Federal minimum wage as well as rules for overtime pay.

Union membership grew rapidly during her tenure and continued to do so in the immediate post-World War II decades, reaching a peak in the mid-1960s, when at least a third of all wage-earners in the upper Midwest states belonged to unions. In Michigan — the quintessential manufacturing state — the share stood at 45 percent in 1964, or nearly half of that state’s work force. Simply by their numbers, unions had the leverage to slow manufacturers who wanted to build factories abroad.

By the late 1970s, however, the merchandise trade deficit — the excess of imported goods over exports — turned negative. (It grew to almost $800 billion last year.) The many benefits of global trade have come at a tremendous cost to American workers. As the trade deficit swelled, unions lost much of their power.

Think about it: A huge amount of what America consumes is made overseas, with the implicit consent of the nation’s now nearly neutered industrial unions. There were just seven strikes that involved at least 1,000 workers in 2017, according to Labor Department records. From 1968 to 1983, in sharp contrast, the total number of strikers across the country fell below 10 million in only one year — 1982. After that period, the annual total exceeded 10 million only three times.

In 1983, union membership was 17.7 million — representing 20 percent of all wage and salary workers. Last year, it was 14.8 million, representing just 10.7 percent of those workers. No wonder President Trump can talk about making America great again and not feel much pressure from organized labor to do much about it.

As union membership declines, labor has less leverage to intervene in the management of a corporation, or to galvanize the public into boycotting the products of manufacturers who put too many factories overseas while exporting less from the United States.

Strikes work when union membership is high enough to encourage the public to support the strikers, or at least feel a kinship with them. My parents, who lived comfortably on my father’s earnings as a textile broker in New York, never crossed a picket line thrown up by a labor union in pursuit of a favorable contract. They might not have agreed with a union’s demands, or even known what they were. But they respected a strike as an often-necessary tool in reaching a compromise acceptable to both sides.

They wanted that compromise. They had been young adults during the Depression, and they did not want to see, once again, the vagrancy and hunger that had been so commonplace — so visible — in the 1930s. That sentiment resurfaced for many Americans in 1965, when Cesar Chavez dug in his heels against California’s table grape growers, organizing a strike against them and calling — successfully — for a nationwide boycott of their grapes.

Mr. Chavez and his cause riveted the nation, and my family and friends stayed away from grapes for weeks. So did millions of others.

The prestige of the labor movement was much greater then. In today’s climate, it is hard to recall the public stature of a man like Douglas Fraser, president of the United Auto Workers from 1977 to 1983, and the first labor leader to sit on the board of an American automobile company — in his case Chrysler. His views mattered.

We have come a long way since then, not necessarily in the right direction. The street demonstrations and marches so characteristic of today’s resistance can be immensely meaningful, but they don’t force the sort of permanent economic change that a union can achieve through a binding contract that emerges from a strike.

Or at least they haven’t yet. Perhaps in time new organizations will emerge — heirs to the old union movement — and one of their priorities will be to pressure manufacturers quite publicly to put more of their factories in the United States.

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