Jay Zagorsky is an economist who teaches at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. This summer he taught his 10,000th Boston University student. Professor Zagorsky has published three books and is working on his fourth entitled “The Power of Cash: Why Using Paper Money Is Good For You and Society.” This is his fifth piece on “The Academic Minute.”
Can Important Unions Collapse and Disappear
Can important unions collapse and disappear? The news is currently full of unions’ winning concessions. But how secure is their future? The International Typographical Union, or ITU, is an example of how a powerful union collapsed and disappeared in just decades.
When the ITU was formed in 1852 typographers’ work was not very different since Guttenberg invented movable type. Typographers selected letters by hand from large cases and put them into rectangular frames for use on printing presses.
Then in 1886 the union faced its first technological shock. A new machine called the Linotype, allowed operators to select letters by typing on a keyboard. A skilled Linotype operator could set thousands more letters than a hand typographer. This made printing cheaper. The ITU embraced the Linotype and saw a massive growth in membership as new publishers sprang up.
Seventy-five years later a second wave of new technologies, phototypesetting and computers, again threatened typesetter’s jobs. This time the ITU fought against the technological changes.
The culminating event was a strike in New York City. When the strike started the city had seven daily newspapers. After a 114 day shutdown only three remained. After the strike publishers began using computers to eliminate typesetters’ jobs. This decimated ITU membership and the union disappeared in the 1990s.
The ITU’s history shows the challenge facing union leaders. Higher demands today can push companies to more rapidly automate, which destroys union jobs tomorrow.