Opinionated History Lesson
Low wages. No minimums. No health and welfare plans. No pensions. Discipline and discharge at a supervisor’s whim without recourse. Working hours as many or as few as the boss wanted that day. Injuries. Illness. Job first, then family. Sexual harassment. Polluted air, rivers on fire. Fired for even thinking the word “union.”
That’s the way it was 100 years ago when “Robber Baron Capitalism” controlled politics, the economy, and the press, and accepted no responsibility for communities, families, or the environment. People were last on the list when it came to the Bottom Line. Bonuses for the big boys, unemployment lines for downsized/outsourced/riffed/redundant/outspoken workers.
For all too many workers in today’s globalized economy it seems like a return to the Bad Old Days. Only we call it “Crony Capitalism” now, that mutually enriching blending of government and free enterprise that workers continue to pay for. Enterprise is hardly free when local, state and federal government subsidies – taxpayer dollars –guarantee profits, or encourage exporting jobs across borders, or give a free ride to a company moving in while ignoring the devastation to the communities they leave behind.
A century ago workers were kept apart by race, nationalities, and gender, with older immigrant groups moving up (as long as they were white) and newer immigrants held down. A woman’s place was in the kitchen. In some places the Irish, for instance, went from being “n—–r” turned inside out to cops breaking strikes against the same conditions they themselves had fought. No matter how bad off you were, there was always some newcomer or nonwhite to blame instead of the system that created the disparities in the first place. Sound familiar?
A stirring example of how workers could overcome the prejudice and work together is told in the 1987 John Sayles movie, Matewan, based on a true story. White Appalachian coal mine workers on strike, African Americans and Italian immigrants brought in as scabs, and how the groups found unity against the goons and absentee mineowners.
There was a similar example in Bisbee where, in 1903, Mexican and Italian miners jointly protested wage cuts only to see their leaders deported. Fourteen years later Bisbee broke a strike by recruiting over two thousand Phelps-Dodge goons to “deport” 1200 striking workers of 35 nationalities across the border into the New Mexico desert.
Labor Day, and the other workers’ holiday, May Day, grew out of the 1880s struggle for an eight-hour day. On September 5, 1882, New York unions, weak as they were, organized the first Labor Day Parade which quickly took hold as an annual event and spread across the country.
On May 1, 1886, one-third of a million workers walked off their jobs in a coordinated action for the eight-hour day. A confrontation at a Chicago rally left a policeman and a striker dead. Eight radicals were arrested despite a complete lack of evidence; four were hung, one committed suicide in prison, and the remaining three were later pardoned.
Anti-radical hysteria and labor’s own divisions between craft unions, which tried to control wages by controlling the number of craftsmen available, and industrial unions which sought to unite all workers in a company or industry, made it easy to defeat the eight-hour movement, break many unions, and put tens of thousands of workers back on the streets, with all too many shot dead on picket lines by police or company thugs.
It wasn’t until the Great Depression that things really changed. President Herbert Hoover tried to convince the capitalist class to take actions to mitigate the economic freefall. They refused, and Hoover complained, “The only problem with capitalism are the damned capitalists. They’re too damned greedy!”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in Hoover’s place and sought to implement a “New Deal.” Facing the same resistance from the corporations and their lackeys in government, FDR turned to the people most affected, the workers and their struggling organizations. For the first time labor unions now had rights, at least on paper, with organizing drives everywhere by both the craft-oriented American Federation of Labor and the newly-chartered Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Moving quickly, CIO president John L. Lewis hired many radical organizers with experience leading to sit-down strikes, boycotts, mass rallies, and other new actions to pressure the bosses. After World War 2 about 35 percent of the workforce were union members, with non-union employers forced to meet the wage and benefit competition in order to hire and retain competent employees, and in some cases required by law to meet wage, hour and other standards.
With millions of men drawn into World War 2 women reclaimed their place in factories and “Rosie the Riveter” made the Hit Parade. Racial barriers fell in many places, although not in the South where racial divisions were still used to keep workers apart and frustrate union organizing. When the war ended, however, a weary nation elected a conservative Congress which immediately sought to roll back labor’s gains. The year 1946 saw more strikes than any previous year in American history, but the growing Red Scare, along with racial and gender divisions in the scramble for fewer jobs, led to purges and rollbacks.
The Taft-Hartley Act allowed states to outlaw mandatory union membership, and soon about half the states, including Arizona, enacted right-to-work (for less) laws. Union membership leveled out despite growth in the public sector, but the post-war years saw the emergence of an American middle class who could own homes, buy cars, and send their kids to college. And with unions employer dictatorships were moderated; workers had enforceable rights and were no longer subject to arbitrary discipline.
As happens when any movement is successful and becomes an institution, the needs of the organization and those of its members can diverge, and some unions succumbed to bureaucracy, or to accommodating the employer in the often-false name of “saving jobs.” A few militant unions survived the Cold War purges and carried on activist, rank and file-oriented activity as best they could. Others became the cigar-chewing “suits” who believed they knew what was best for working men and women. Some unions raided each other instead of organizing in new areas.
When Republican President Ronald Reagan destroyed the striking Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization with the stroke of a pen in 1981, it sent a signal to employers that the rules had changed. Union-busting became a growth industry as the 1980s saw a wave of plant closures with jobs outsourced across borders and oceans. Public employee unions, a bright spot as private union membership shrank, came under special attack, an assault which continues today.
The continued weakening of what’s left of the labor movement has been bipartisan. It was Democratic Arizona Governor Brue Babbitt who sent the National Guard to escort strikebreakers into Phelps-Dodge mines in 1983, effectively helping the company keep its promise to “kill the union” in Clifton-Morenci, Bisbee, Ajo, Douglas and El Paso.
Union strength is bottoming today close to what it was 100 years ago, but new worker movements keep breaking out as employees assert their worth and their dignity. The minimum wage movement, fast food organizing, Wal-Mart — even college teaching assistants. The simple truth is that as long as there are bosses, workers will create organizations to defend themselves against the arbitrary dictatorship of the workplace.
AFL founder Samuel Gompers is often quoted answering the question, What does labor want? with saying “More!” The corporate press used that over and over to show that labor unions were narrow and self-interested. What Gompers actually said was:
“What does labor want? More. More schoolhouses and less arsenals, more learning and less vice, more leisure and less greed, more justice and less revenge; in fact, more opportunities to cultivate our better natures.”
The grandson of an immigrant copper miner and son of a merchant seaman, Albert Vetere Lannon was a high school dropout and blue collar worker, a 21-year union representative in Northern California, and a Bay Area labor educator after earning his high school GED and several college degrees in his fifties. He retired to Tucson in 2001 and lives in Picture Rocks with his artist and poet spouse. He is struggling with cancer, and the local civic organization, Citizens for Picture Rocks, has declared that their next meeting, September 19, will be Albert Vetere Lannon Appreciation Day for his years of active service to the community.