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Resurrecting Labor


Rick Bales


Participation in American labor unions has changed radically, albeit incrementally, over the last fifty years. Private-sector union density has declined five-fold, whereas public-sector density has increased almost as significantly. Today, unions rarely strike, and in much of the country, they are politically impotent. As traditional manufacturing declines and is replaced by on-demand work, unions risk becoming a historical footnote.

This Article ties the decline in union density and power to macroeconomic trends that are highly troubling in an advanced democracy, such as rising income inequality and the failure of wage growth to keep pace with gross domestic product (“GDP”) growth. It next reviews the traditional prescriptions that labor scholars have advocated to reverse labor’s decline. Finally, it proposes three new radical fixes: authorizing criminal prosecution for willful violations of labor law, expanding labor protections to on-demand workers, and reversing the legal presumption that workers are not represented by a union unless they affirmatively opt in.

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