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Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Regarding the Economic and Political Power of Labor Unions Then and Today
“The labor movement in the United States grew out of the need to protect the common interest of workers. For those in the industrial sector, organized labor unions fought for better wages, reasonable hours and safer working conditions. The labor movement led efforts to stop child labor, give health benefits and provide aid to workers who were injured or retired.
“The origins of the labor movement lay in the formative years of the American nation, when a free wage-labor market emerged in the artisan trades late in the colonial period. The earliest recorded strike occurred in 1768 when New York journeymen tailors protested a wage reduction. The formation of the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers (shoemakers) in Philadelphia in 1794 marks the beginning of sustained trade union organization among American workers.
“From that time on, local craft unions proliferated in the cities, publishing lists of ‘prices’ for their work, defending their trades against diluted and cheap labor, and, increasingly, demanding a shorter workday. Thus a job-conscious orientation was quick to emerge, and in its wake there followed the key structural elements characterizing American trade unionism–first, beginning with the formation in 1827 of the Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations in Philadelphia, central labor bodies uniting craft unions within a single city, and then, with the creation of the International Typographical Union in 1852, national unions bringing together local unions of the same trade from across the United States and Canada (hence the frequent union designation ‘international’).
“Although the factory system was springing up during these years, industrial workers played little part in the early trade union development. In the nineteenth century, trade unionism was mainly a movement of skilled workers…
“In politics, its enhanced power led the union movement not to a new departure but to a variant on the policy of nonpartisanship. As far back as the Progressive Era, organized labor had been drifting toward the Democratic party, partly because of the latter’s greater programmatic appeal, perhaps even more because of its ethno-cultural basis of support within an increasingly ‘new’ immigrant working class.
“With the coming of Roosevelt’s New Deal, this incipient alliance solidified, and from 1936 onward the Democratic Party could count on–and came to rely on–the campaigning resources of the labor movement…
“Collective bargaining performed impressively after World War II, more than tripling weekly earnings in manufacturing between 1945 and 1970, gaining for union workers an unprecedented measure of security against old age, illness, and unemployment, and, through contractual protections, greatly strengthening their right to fair treatment at the workplace. But if the benefits were greater and if they went to more people, the basic job-conscious thrust remained intact. Organized labor was still a sectional movement, covering at most only a third of America’s wage earners and inaccessible to those cut off in the low-wage secondary labor market.
“Nothing better captures the uneasy amalgam of old and new in the postwar labor movement than the treatment of minorities and women who flocked in, initially from the mass production industries, but after 1960 from the public and service sectors as well. Labor’s historic commitment to racial and gender equality was thereby much strengthened, but not to the point of challenging the status quo within the labor movement itself.
“Thus the leadership structure remained largely closed to minorities–as did the skilled jobs that were historically the preserve of white male workers–notoriously so in the construction trades but in the industrial unions as well... That this legislation might be directed against discriminatory trade union practices was anticipated (and quietly welcomed) by the more progressive labor leaders. But more significant was the meaning they found in championing this kind of reform: the chance to act on the broad ideals of the labor movement. And, so motivated, they deployed labor’s power with great effect in the achievement of John F. Kennedy’s and Lyndon B. Johnson’s domestic programs during the 1960s.
“This was ultimately economic, not political power, however, and as organized labor’s grip on the industrial sector began to weaken, so did its political capability. From the early 1970s onward, new competitive forces swept through the heavily unionized industries, set off by deregulation in communications and transportation, by industrial restructuring, and by an unprecedented onslaught of foreign goods.
“As oligopolistic and regulated market structures broke down, nonunion competition spurted, concession bargaining became widespread, and plant closings decimated union memberships. The once-celebrated National Labor Relations Act increasingly hamstrung the labor movement; an all-out reform campaign to get the law amended failed in 1978. And with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, there came to power an anti-union administration the likes of which had not been seen since the Harding era.
“Between 1975 and 1985, union membership fell by 5 million. In manufacturing, the unionized portion of the labor force dropped below 25 percent, while mining and construction, once labor’s flagship industries, were decimated. Only in the public sector did the unions hold their own. By the end of the 1980s, less than 17 percent of American workers were organized, half the proportion of the early 1950s. Swift to change the labor movement has never been. But if the new high-tech and service sectors seemed beyond its reach in 1989, so did the mass production industries in 1929…
“In the meantime, however, the movement’s impotence has been felt. ‘The collapse of labor’s legislative power facilitated the adoption of a set of economic policies highly beneficial to the corporate sector and to the affluent,’ wrote analyst Thomas B. Edsall in 1984. And, with collective bargaining in retreat, declining living standards of American wage-earning families set in for the first time since the Great Depression. The union movement became in the 1980s a diminished economic and political force, and, in the Age of Reagan, this made for a less socially just nation.”
For the complete article on the Labor Movement, Click Here.
Photo: My father is in the center with his big smile and lots of dark hair.