Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day Musings: Why Unions Still Matter

Sometimes students complain to me that my American History survey classes are an endless refrain of “race, race, race,” or “labor, labor, labor,” or a combination of the two. And they are right, to an extent, though I do cover other things as well… but those two topics have been huge factors in American history, and they do often intersect.

I teach at Tennessee Tech University, my undergrad alma mater, located a few miles from my home town (which is Sparta –TTU is in nearby Cookeville.) I did my graduate work at the University of Illinois, at Champaign-Urbana; the two regions are very different, in a lot of ways, not the least of which is the communities’ viewpoints on organized labor. There is plenty of anti-union sentiment in “Chambana” –we learned that when our graduate employees’ organization went on strike (successfully) in 2009. But there was also plenty of pro-union sentiment, and people from a wide range of backgrounds who refused to cross picket lines. In the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee, on the other hand, there seems to be an almost universal feeling among the populace that unions are ineffective, corrupt, and even evil. And that Tennessee is just not a union place, and never has been.

And it’s no wonder they feel that way. Since I’m a historian, here’s where I start throwing dates at you. In 1946 Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress for the first time since the beginning of the Depression –in other words, they were out of power for all four of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s terms (his fourth one mostly filled by his VP, Harry Truman, as FDR died not far into it.) Now that they were back in the game, the GOP wanted to undo as many of FDR’s liberal accomplishments as possible, starting with labor unions –which had grown considerably in the 1930s and 1940s, helped by the Wagner Act (officially, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935), which had legally secured many of the rights unions had been fighting to achieve for decades. Organized labor stood at a high point at the end of WWII, with one quarter of the American workforce unionized. During the Roosevelt years, in fact, the general public perception of unions had shifted from “they’re all a bunch of communist socialist foreign-influenced troublemakers” (the 1920s, in some ways the most conservative decade in American history) to “Look for the union label –made in America! Unions help preserve freedom!” (WWII.)

In 1947 Congress passed an amendment to the 1935 Wagner Act, the Taft-Hartley Act (or, the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947.) President Truman vetoed it, but there were enough votes to override his veto. The new law tilted the balance significantly away from labor and toward management, in sundry ways –but one of the most significant was that it gave individual states the right to pass “right-to-work” laws. The Wagner Act had protected the “closed shop” –employers had to agree to hire only union workers. Taft-Hartley made this illegal, but there was still the option to have “union shops”, in which you didn’t have to be a union member to get a job, but you had to join the union within a specified time period. “Right-to-work” laws outlawed that system as well; in essence, you have the “right to work” without having to join a union.

And on the surface, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it? The very name has positive connotations –heck, everyone should have the right to work, right?

Here is a little exercise I use in class to explain the effects of late 19th century Taylorization, or scientific management, on factory work (it took a lot of power away from specialized craftsmen –the approach was nicknamed after its principal architect, Frederick Winslow Taylor) as well as to demonstrate the practical effects of “right-to-work.”


All right, students- this classroom is now a paper airplane factory, and I am the owner. Under the old craftsman-and-apprentice way of doing things –in place till the late 19th century –I would rely on a small number of skilled craftsmen to supervise the building of my paper airplanes. They would serve as gang bosses, and have a crew of apprentices. [at this point, I ask who knows how to make a paper airplane –nowadays, a minority of students.] As owner, I don’t have to know anything about how the process works, I just need to supply the funds.

Okay… all you folks who have the specialized knowledge of how to make a paper airplane, you are gang bosses; I’m going to pay you a dollar a day. The rest of the students are your helpers, they get fifty cents a day. And good news, I’ve decided to give one lucky gang boss a ten dollar bonus! We’re going to have a contest to see who gets the prize. The first person to successfully make and launch a paper airplane is the winner. I have helpers assigned to carefully monitor each of you, to see how you do it. Now –go!

We have a winner –one minute, forty-five seconds. Congratulations, you get the ten dollar prize!

Now- all you gang bosses are fired. I have carefully observed and recorded your paper airplane building technique, and I don’t need you anymore –now I have the manufacturing knowledge. Plus, I now know it is humanly possible to make a paper airplane in exactly one minute and forty-five seconds –so now that is what I expect from all the rest of you, all day long. And I am cutting your wages to 35 cents a day.

At this point I ask the students if there is anything they could have done to prevent me from taking those actions. The answer: they could have organized. If they had all stood together, there is at least a chance they could have prevented the scenario from working out so much to their detriment. How many of you wish you had organized? [Just about everyone raises their hand.]

Now- how many of you would have been willing, out of your fifty cents a day pay, to give ten cents of it into a common fund to support your organizing actions? [Almost no one raises their hand.]

Under a closed or union shop, you’d all make the same investment in dues, and you’d have a common fund to draw from to support any action you chose to take. Under right-to-work, or an open shop, only those who volunteered to contribute would have to –and only a small fraction would do so, maybe 10% at most. Let’s say there are a hundred workers; in this scenario, you’d have a union, but it would only have ten members –and it would not be strong enough to accomplish anything. Let’s say you went on strike –ten percent of a workforce can be easily replaced. If you did get any concessions, it would probably apply to the whole workforce –meaning even less incentive for anyone to join, as they could get any potential benefits (if there were any) with no personal risk. Plus, all of the workers would have less security because they would have no powerful union to protect their interests; it is no accident that right-to-work states are also fire-at-will states. As President Obama put it, it is actually “the right to work for less money.” It is also no accident that the decline in power (and public prestige) of unions has been paralleled by decreasing power for workers.

Back to Taft-Hartley. The law was passed in 1947, and states were allowed to pass right-to-work laws if they wished. Guess which states did? States in the South, and parts of the West:

Note that Iowa is among the blue states; their right-to-work law was passed in the 1980s. Here is a more recent map, reflecting the recent laws passed in the Industrial Midwest: Indiana and Michigan have both joined the right-to-work column in 2013, thanks to Republican-dominated legislatures. There have been similar efforts, so far thwarted, in Wisconsin and Ohio.

Incidentally, here is a map of the poorest states as of 2000, pre-Great Recession:

And here is a map showing the poverty levels in 2009, POST Great Recession:

Looking at all those maps shows us that the economic downturn has hit the “Rust Belt” of the Industrial Midwest pretty hard, and hasn’t spared the West Coast, either, as a lot of states have moved into poverty since the recession hit.

But notice something else. As of 2000, of the twelve states with the highest poverty rates, 8 had been right-to-work states for half a century. That’s 2/3. Of the 12 states with the LOWEST poverty rate, only ONE had a right-to-work law. Looking at the 12 NEXT-highest poverty states in 2000, the “3rd Quartile,” 9 of them had right-to-work laws.

The right to work for less.

Of course, the 2009 map looks different…. Generally speaking, all the states that had high poverty a decade earlier still did, but several more had joined them- particularly in the Midwest, which was hit very hard by the recession. This would explain why some residents in that area have been influenced by the conservative media campaign telling them that unions have not helped them, and that all their jobs have gone to right-to-work states. But the fact is, looking at the longterm effects of right-to-work on the South in particular, the longer a state operates under that system the poorer its citizens get.

And what a media campaign it has been. For the first time in my memory, teachers, firemen, and police have been painted as bad guys –lazy, opportunistic parasites, sucking away your hard-earned tax dollars because they are unionized. Those are the most important jobs in this country, and I’ve never known anyone who filled them who was paid what that job ought to be worth. Yet in the 21st century they’re being demonized.

When I talk to people who are anti-union, or undecided, the first thing I point out to them (naturally) is the fact that there is a long list of benefits most of us have today –safety regulations, a 40-hour week, overtime for hourly employees who go over that, sick leave, vacation time, paid holidays –all of it won by unions. 

“Well, sure,” they often reply. “But that was the past. We don’t need unions anymore, we have all that stuff.”

Here’s the deal. We have that stuff because people struggled, and people died, to get it. Right here in the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee, there was violent suppression of the United Mine Workers in the 1930s; it was even worse in West Virginia in the ‘20s. If you haven’t seen the film Matewan, you need to –and you should read about Tennessee’s Wilder strike HERE.

If all those gains are allowed to be lost, someone else is going to have to struggle to get them back. And inaction will inevitably lead to their loss. Why has there been such a right-to-work battle in the Midwest, traditionally a strong union area? Because in the 2010 midterm elections there was a lot of apathy among progressives because President Obama’s promised change wasn’t coming fast enough, and a lot of them stayed home on the day of the midterm elections. And a conservative wave passed through the state legislatures of this country, and now we are seeing the result. They may not have crippled the power of unions in Wisconsin and Ohio, but they did so in Michigan, “home base” of the American labor movement… so they’re not going to quit trying.

But they can only succeed if we let them. The people, united, will never be defeated.


  1. Unions have served and can still serve as a beneficial force in our nation. I don't think the anger and angst towards unions is because people think that the workers in particular are lazy, greedy, or parasitic. I believe that much of it is because many people believe that some unions, their leaders in particular, became too powerful and corrupt. Unions were a major influence in the fall of the American automotive industry. I don't put all the blame on union demands, but it was a major contributor. The other problem many have with unions is the difficulty to single individuals out based on performance. Undesirable, criminal, and even dangerous union members' jobs are often protected by their union making it almost impossible to remove them while it is almost as difficult to reward excellence in workers. I should also have the right to a job as a non-union worker. Employers who treated their employees like you describe in the paper airplane story would soon have trouble finding individuals that would work for them. It is also possible to collectively bargain and demand fair work environments without surrendering a portion of your earnings to a union and its leadership. I am not anti-union but I don't believe anyone's right to work should be based on whether they belong to a union or not for those reasons.

  2. Troy, Oklahoma is a right-to-work state and it's terrible! I've worked places where people come to work, work all day long, and then are given their pink slip at the end of the day with no explanation--just "We don't need you anymore, and don't show up again." It's virtually impossible to get any kind of justice for being fired without cause.

    I'm definitely FOR unions, even though I was raised in Oklahoma, where unions certainly have not been strong since we're more agriculturally-based than manufacturing. But I've spent a good many years in WV, and even now, if there weren't unions there, things would revert back to pre-1920's conditions.

    I think corporate greed is never going away. No matter how much money a corporation makes, it's never enough. So there's no caring about the employees and their conditions because that would cut into the profits, of course. Don't want to deal with unions? Ship out the business to China or any other number of countries who don't have the basic rules we have here in America--child labor being one of the main ones.

    I'm very pro-union. A lot of our woes could be solved if the US would adopt a simple plan--if it's not made in the USA, then when it's sold there'll be a huge import fee on it--no matter what it might be. If these corporations are hit in their pocketbook, they'll stop shipping out jobs overseas because it wouldn't be cost effective to do so. Loved your post--great information.

  3. I'm sharing this on FaceBook, Troy. Wisconsin's governor (Walker) is shoving us down a road of no return; the road greased by the Koch brothers slimey hands. This is BS.

  4. I was driving a taxi in Las Vegas and the union called for a strike. I wanted very much to strike but the strike pay would not even cover my rent and food. I had no choice but to work just to stay alive. Of course no one in the union would help drivers like me. The drivers who were striking, mostly Ethiopians who make a good wage by long hauling tourists, had a great time taunting so-called scabs who had to work to stay alive. The so-called union leaders were too busy enjoying their salaries which were earned on the back of poor drivers like me. I don't know who to hate more -- the evil company or the evil so-called labor union. This experience taught me that the labor unions in America are frauds. The only solution is total revolution and the overthrow of capitalism. The worker will only find security and dignity in a socialist state which is working for a classless society and offers no compromise to the exploiters. One day we will get rid not only of the exploiting class but also the fake unions who are taking union dues from the workers and in many cases payoffs from the companies at the same time. Now I am a confirmed Marxist-Leninist.

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