Due to the recent strikes and worker responses to cuts to benefits and wages during the recent economic downturn, a look back at the history of unions is in order.
Many Americans vaguely understand that most of America’s workforce protections were born out of the labor movement and unionization, not to mention, many of the benefits workers these days take for granted; weekends off, the 40 hour work week, paid vacation, worker’s comp, anti-discrimination laws, etc.
But what most Americans of this generation don’t know or understand is the history that brought about these changes in society and the impetuses for them.
Unionization actually began in the U.K. when the agrarian society was overtaken by industrialization. Pastoral workers were exceedingly cut out of the labor market and more and more of society began to centralize around the growing cities where industrialized work was more readily available.
In America, the labor movement “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 History Channel)
Unions predate the Revolutionary War in America, first emerging around artisan trades, such as shoe-making, printerships and the like. The same ideals that pushed the American Revolution, the ideal of equality, a fair wage for a fair day’s work and fair taxation, helped to shape the American Labor movement. The idea was to create a society where all who worked for and honed their crafts would be able to secure a job with a living wage with reasonable protections.
See video, the history of labor day and other related videos here.
“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.” (The History Channel)
The labor movement “harbored a conception of the just society, deriving from the Ricardian labor theory of value (The labor theory of value states that the relative price of two goods is determined by the ratio of the quantities of labor required in their production) and from the republican ideals of the American Revolution, which fostered social equality, celebrated honest labor, and relied on an independent, virtuous citizenship.” (The History Channel)
But from the beginning, the clash between unfettered capitalism and the needs of workers was evident. The capitalists of the 1800’s in America sought to push the workforce by whatever means necessary in order to speed up production and increase profits. That meant, if paying workers less, not providing health benefits or compensation for work injuries or deaths, it was a byproduct of working in industry.
However, the workers in those industries, often including young children, argued that the ideals fostered by the new nation should also apply to the workplace. Without fairness, without a fair wage and reasonable protections, the unions asserted that the result would be a society of the haves and have nots.
“The transforming economic changes of industrial capitalism ran counter to labor’s vision. The result, as early labor leaders saw it, was to raise up “two distinct classes, the rich and the poor.” Beginning with the workingmen’s parties of the 1830s, the advocates of equal rights mounted a series of reform efforts that spanned the nineteenth century.” (The History Channel)
The tumultuous history of organized labor, exemplifies the fact that no change comes easily and progressive change in America has often been met with fierce opposition, often pitting one group or one class of people against the other. (See the history of labor strikes in part 2).
Through the turbulent period of increasing work stoppages and strikes of the late 19th century and early 20th century, came one of the most productive times in the labor movment; the post WWII economic boom.
“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 as with most of the turbulent societal changes of the 1950’s and 60’s, racial divisions existed even within the labor movement that sought in its foundation equality for all. With the labor movement’s bent toward social justice, “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.” (The History Channel)
The AFL-CIO, two labor movements born out of the late 19th century, joined together in 1955 and played a crucial role in the battle for civil rights, helping to push the progressive legislation of 1964-1965. Overall, the push within the labor movement for civil rights, even among those that weren’t necessarily supportive of Civil Rights legislation, was the hope that those same protections would translate into protections for unions overall.
“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.”
Even with the labor movement’s gains of the 50’s and 60’s, the protections, wages and benefits enjoyed by union workers, only covered about a third of the overall workforce. “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.” (The History Channel)
The weakening of unions and the labor movement began in the early 1970’s and was rapidly pushed in the 1980’s by the Reagan administration. Deregulation and the move to more high tech, less labor intensive industries, along with the flood of cheap goods from abroad, spurred the drop in unionization and with it, the wage increases achieved as well as the benefits earned by the labor movement.
“…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.”
“…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.” (The History Channel)
These changes were especially significant to the minority union workers who had seen their quality of life and the burgeoning of a strong middle class as the result of the progress of the labor movement post WWII. In fact, the proportion of Blacks particularly was higher among union workers than within the general population.
“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.” (The History Channel)
Today, unionization in the private sector is at an all-time low. “Private-sector union membership in 2011 equaled a record low of 6.9 percent set the year before. Public-sector union membership is stronger at 37 percent.”
With that decline has come a stagnation over the last thirty years in wages and benefits in the workforce overall, not just among union workers. Not just wages and benefits, but also public sentiment towards unions and union workers has also declined significantly since the 50’s.
“Support for unions hit its peak in the 1950s, when 75 percent of Americans said they approved of them. Only about 20 percent of Americans now say they trust unions, according to a Gallup Poll conducted in August.”
“Organized labor is in a much weaker position today than it was during the air traffic controllers’ strike [during the Reagan administration]. A recent Pew Research survey found that favorability of labor unions is at one of its lowest levels since 1985. Gallup’s seven-decade track on public approval of labor unions has found a similar trend.”
Support for unions also falls down along party lines. Since the beginning, even predating the switch from the Democratic party to the Republican party by many of the same antagonistic forces against unions, unions have always backed and been a large supporter of the Democratic Party. Therefore, it is not suprising that among Democrats, unions enjoy 74% approval, while only 31% of Republicans approve of them, according to Gallup.
“We (unions) haven’t done a good job in explaining what unions are and what they do,” Omens said. “And the right wing has invested a ton of money in telling the story of the ‘big, bad unions doing bad things.’ And that has taken its toll.”
History Channel Source: Foster R. Dulles and Melvyn Dubofsky, Labor in America: A History, 4th ed. (1984); Robert H. Zieger, American Workers, American Unions, 1920-1985 (1986). See more on the history of the labor movement at http://www.history.com/topics/labor
America’s First Labor Day
The Knights of Labor, a labor union of tailors in Philadelphia, hold the first Labor Dayceremonies in American history. The Knights of Labor was established as a secret society of Pennsylvanian tailors earlier in the year and later grew into a national body that played an important role in the labor movement of the late 19th century.
The first annual observance of Labor Day was organized by the American Federation of Labor in 1884, which resolved in a convention in Chicago that “the first Monday in September be set aside as a laborer’s national holiday.” In 1887, Oregon became the first state to designate Labor Day a holiday, and in 1894 Congress designated the first Monday in September a legal holiday for all federal employees and the residents of the District of Columbia.