The Death of Organized Labor, or its Rebirth?

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A popular Chinese curse of questionable authenticity is “May you live in interesting times.” A contrary blessing for those who seek invigorating and engaged lives might be “May you live in momentous times.” Certainly these are momentous times for many in the Arab world. If not so dramatically and dangerously (despite the advice of a now ex Indiana Asst. Attorney General), as of last week, they are likewise significant and historical times in the United States. Labor history is profoundly influential political and social history. It shaped the domestic and economic lives of Americans throughout the twentieth century, its achievements so woven into everyday life, they are as taken for granted as the forty-hour work week. Now, what the Republicans and conservatives are attempting in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and other states – the reactionary rollback of the social and labor progress of the twentieth century that helped create the American middle class – is once again the stuff of history, and the events of these weeks, perhaps months, will be analyzed in works of history, narrated in textbooks, and taught in classrooms. A question for all those who understand the influence on their own lives of the greater social climate is whether they want to play a role in shaping history or merely be subject to it.

Why labor unions are essential

Sam Smith

If you came of age in the past ten years and don’t belong to a union or come from a family of union members, chances are most of what you’ve heard about these labor organizations has been, on balance, negative.

Which helps to explain why as late as a decade ago, two thirds of Americans approved of unions while today, less than half do. Go back to the 1950s and you’ll find three-quarters of Americans liking unions.

The membership decline in unions has been as bad. Between 1973 and 2007, for example, the percent of private sector workers in unions declined from nearly a quarter to 7 percent.

In a 2007 Paul Krugman of the New York Times explained what happened:

It’s often assumed that the U.S. labor movement died a natural death, that it was made obsolete by globalization and technological change. But what really happened is that beginning in the 1970s, corporate America, which had previously had a largely cooperative relationship with unions, in effect declared war on organized labor.

Don’t take my word for it; read Business Week, which published an article in 2002 titled How Wal-Mart Keeps Unions at Bay. The article explained that “over the past two decades, Corporate America has perfected its ability to fend off labor groups.” It then described the tactics – some legal, some illegal, all involving a healthy dose of intimidation – that Wal-Mart and other giant firms use to block organizing drives.

These hardball tactics have been enabled by a political environment that has been deeply hostile to organized labor, both because politicians favored employers’ interests and because conservatives sought to weaken the Democratic Party. “We’re going to crush labor as a political entity,” Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, once declared.

Then the disastrous Ronald Reagan signed the White House up for the war against unions and it wasn’t long before the corporate media was lending a hand, which has continued right to the present.

The sad truth is the most people know little history, even the history of their own lives and the social conditions and events that shaped what for them seems just the natural condition of the world in which they live, even when those conditions deteriorate year by year for reasons they do not recognize. From Think Progress:

Report: As Union Membership Rates Decrease, Middle Class Incomes Shrink

Our guest bloggers are Karla Walter, Senior Policy Analyst, and David Madland, Director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Union membership is at record lows and is likely to drop even further tomorrow when the Bureau of Labor Statistics announces new figures for 2010. Critics claim that unions are not important to the modern economy — with only 12 percent of workers currently unionized — but the truth is that if you care about the middle class, you need to care about unions.

The middle class is markedly stronger when workers join together in unions. As the chart below demonstrates, the sharp decline over the past 40 years in the percentage of workers organized in unions has been associated with an equally sharp drop in the share of the nation’s income going to the middle class — those in the second, third and forth income quintiles*:

The power of unions to create prosperity for working families is well recognized: Organized labor is one of the few voices for the economic interests of the middle class in our government. Unions were key to creating and protecting the social safety net (including Social Security and Medicare) and winning major legislative victories for working families such as the Equal Pay Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act and — most recently — the Affordable Care Act.

And unions ensure that workers are paid fair wages. Unionized workers today make significantly more on than their non-union counterparts — about $2.50 more per hour than an otherwise comparable worker in the typical state according to a recent study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

When unions were stronger in the middle part of the last century, American workers wages rose as they became increasingly more productive. But today, as union strength has decreased, this link has broken down: even though American workers grow increasingly more productive, their wages have stagnated. At the same time, more and more income has become concentrated at the very top of the income scale.

What is the basic history that so many do not know? From Academic American History:

Because we live in an age in which workers are protected by federal and state laws as well as by sound business practices, it is hard for us to imagine a time when workers—especially unskilled, often immigrant workers—were completely at the mercy of their employers…[B]efore the industrial age factories and workplaces were small enough that the owner knew everyone by name and often worked alongside his or her employees. The age of the modern factory and impersonal management changed all that, and the patent unfairness with which workers were treated became scandalous. For example, if a worker was injured on the job by faulty machinery, there was no mechanism for obtaining compensation. If a worker sued, he or she had to prove that it was not his or her own negligence that caused the accident….

Historian Page Smith examines the industrial revolution in Volume 6 of his People’s History of the United States and calls the events of that era “The War between Capital and Labor.” It is an apt title: the two sides were indeed at war, with armies of armed men fighting on both sides. The level of human violence and destruction of property did in fact often create warlike conditions, a situation exacerbated by the fact that many workers were Civil War veterans. They declared themselves just as prepared to shoot a corporate hireling as they had been ready to kill a Yankee or a rebel. America’s captains of industry, who themselves often rose from very modest circumstances, saw workers as commodities to be dealt with like any raw material. Cold, ruthless, calculating and impervious to the negative effects of what they were doing, they hired their own armies to deal with recalcitrant laborers.


Industrial safety was a large issue: factory work was very dangerous, and it was difficult if not impossible to hold factory owners responsible for deaths and injuries. Around 1900 25-35,000 deaths and 1 million injuries per year occurred on industrial jobs. Many of the deaths occurred on railroad jobs, which were especially dangerous. Fires, machinery accidents, train wrecks and other misfortunes were common. No federal regulation of safety and no enforcement of state or local safety regulations existed. Insurance and pensions were rare, and courts were not sympathetic to worker claims; no liability was seen if the worker was negligent, or if the employer was not. The burden of proof was on the injured party to prove he or she had not been negligent—and it is difficult to prove a negative. Poor English was a problem; many workers could not read safety regulations or instructions on operating machines. Only about two percent of those injured or killed ever recovered on claims.

In all confrontations of the late 19th century, workers were generally losers. Immigrants and blacks were often targets of resentment because they were used as strikebreakers, or “scabs.” In general the union movement was secondary to the general struggle for jobs—in the labor game it was a buyers’ market. The age of industrialization was also the age of exploitation—of people, land, and resources—and while many benefited from the results, many also suffered. As industrialization and urbanization changed the face of America forever, those who took the time to look backward were astounded at how far the nation had come in just a few decades.


The American Federation of Labor was a combination of national craft unions….The Federation’s goals were limited to what was achievable within the system that existed: shorter hours, better wages, and the right of collective bargaining. The AF of L did not threaten the capitalist system as the Knights [of Labor] had done. They sought no “pie in the sky” solutions, but rather worked for a smooth transition to a better existence for workers and their families. Always pragmatic, Gompers said the union movement was “of the working people, for the working people, by the working people.”

A twentieth century timeline of American labor history, from the AFL-CIO:

The Progressive Era

1900 AFL and National Civic Federation promote trade agreements with employers U.S. Industrial Commission declares trade unions good for democracy.

1902 Anthracite strike arbitrated after President Theodore Roosevelt intervenes

1903 Women’s Trade Union League formed at AFL convention

1905 Industrial Workers of the World founded

1908 AFL endorses Democrat William Jennings Bryan for President

1909 “Uprising of the 20,000” female shirtwaist makers in New York strike against sweatshop conditions. * Unorganized immigrant steel workers strike in McKees Rocks, Pa. And win all demand

1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory in fire in New York kills nearly 150 workers

1912 Bread and Roses strike begun by immigrant women in Lawrence, Mass., ended with 23,000 men and women and children on strike and with as many as 20,000 on the picket line. * Bill creating Department of Labor passes at the end of congressional session

1913 Woodrow Wilson takes office as president and appoints the first secretary of labor, William B. Wilson of the Mine Workers

1914 Ludlow Massacre of 13 women and children and seven men in Colorado coal miners’ strike

1917 United States enters World War I

1918 Leadership of Industrial Workers of the World sentenced to federal prison oncharges of disloyalty to the United States

1919 One of every five workers walked out in great strike wave, including national clothing coal and steel strikes; a general strike in Seattle; and a police strike in Boston International Labor Organization founded in France

Repression and the Depression

1920 19th Amendment to the Constitution gives women the right to vote

1924 Samuel Gompers dies; William Green becomes new AFL president

1925 A. Philip Randolph helps create the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

1926 Railway Labor Act sets up procedures to settle railway labor disputes and forbids discrimination against union members

1929 Stock market crashes as stocks fall 40 percent; Great Depression begins

1931 Davis-Bacon Act provides for prevailing wages on publicly funded construction projects

1932 Norris-LaGuardia Act prohibits federal injunctions in most labor disputes

1933 President Franklin Roosevelt proposes New Deal programs to Congress

Democratizing America

1934 Upsurge in strikes, including national textile strike, which fails

1935 National Labor Relations Act and Social Security Act passed. * Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) formed within AFL. NLRA signed by President Roosevelt in 1935, protected the right of American workers to organize and bargain collectively.

1936 AFL and CIO create labor’s Non-Partisan League and help President Roosevelt win re-election to a second term

1937 Auto Workers win sit-down strike against General Motors in Flint, Mich. * Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters wins contract with Pullman Co.

1938    Fair Labor Standards Act establishes first minimum wage and 40-hour week. * Congress of industrial Organizations forms as an independent federation

1940 John L. Lewis resigns and Philip Murray becomes CIO president

1941 A. Philip Randolph threatens march on Washington to pretest racial discimination in defense jobs

1941 U.S. troops enter combat in World Wal II. * National War Labor Board created with union members

1943 CIO forms first political action committee to get out the union vote for President Roosevelt

The Fight for Economic and Social Justice

1946 Largest strike wave in U.S. history

1947 Taft-Hartley Act restricts union members’ activities

1949 First two of 11 unions with Communist leaders are purged from CIO

1952 William Green and Philip Murray die; George Meany and Walter Reuther become presidents of AFL and CIO, respectively

1955 AFL and CIO merge; George Meany becomes president

1957 AFL-CIO expels two affiliates for corruption

1959 Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (Landrum-Griffin) passed

1962 President John Kennedy’s order gives federal workers the right to bargain

1963 March on Washington for jobs and Justice. * Equal Pay Act bans wage discrimination based on gender

1964 Civil Rights Act bans institutional forms of racial discrimination

1965 AFL-CIO forms A. Philip Randolph Institute. * César Chávez forms AFL-CIO United Farm Workers Organizing Committee

1968 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., during sanitation workers’ strike

Progress and new challenges

1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act passed

1972 Coalition of Black Trade Unionists formed

1973 Labor Council for Latin American Advancement founded

1974 Coalition of Labor Union Women founded

1979 Lane Kirkland elected president of AFL-CIO

1981 President Reagan breaks air traffic controllers’s strike. * AFL-CIO rallies 400,000 in Washington on Solidarity Day

1989 Organizing Institute created

1990 United Mine Workers of America win strike against Pittston Coal. * United Steelworkers of America labor Alliance created within the AFL-CIO

1992 Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance created within AFL-CIO

1995 Thomas Donahue replaces Lane Kirkland as interim had of AFL-CIO (BULLEG) John Sweeney president of AFL-CIO

1997 AFL-CIO defeats legislation giving the president the ability to “Fast Track’ trade legislation without assured protection of workers’ rights and the environment

1997 Pride at Work, a national coalition of lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender workers and their supporters, becomes an AFL-CIO constituency group. * AFL-CIO membership renewed growth

1999 More than 75,000 human service workers are unionized in Los Angeles County. * 30,000 to 50,000 working family activists take to Seattle streets to tell the World Trade Organization and its allies, “If the Global Economy Doesn’t Work for Working Families, It Doesn’t Work.” * 5,000 North Carolina textile workers gain a union after a 25-year struggle. * 65,000 Puerto Rico public-sector workers join unions. * Broad Campaign for Global Fairness pushes for economic and social justice worldwide. * Union movement organizes biggest program of grassroots electoral politics ever

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