A Thumbnail Opinionated History
(Continued from Sept. 2): Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal soon gave up on trying to enlist corporate cooperation to end the depression, and turned instead to the unions, still under attack in major conflicts such as the 1934 West Coast longshore strike and Minneapolis truckers strike. Both suffered police killings of strikers and resulted in area-wide general strikes as workers united to stand up against violence and for economic justice.
The 1935 National Labor Relations Act created a legal way for unions to be recognized short of strikes and slow-downs, and to hold employers accountable to their employees. Unhappy with the narrow AFL approach to organizing, in 1935 United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis led the creation of the Committee (later Congress) of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Needing a small army of trained organizers, Lewis – although no leftist — turned to the small but active Communist Party for troops. Like the IWW, and in bitter opposition to the AFL, the CIO sought to unite all workers in a plant or industry, and with creative organizing tactics like sit-down strikes, brought organization to the steel, auto, electrical and other industries.
World War II unity saw labor peace as the nation pulled together to win the war, and both unions and factories welcomed Rosie the Riveter and her friends to replace the men who were fighting the battles. A Second Great Migration saw some 5 million African Americans leave the agricultural south for industrial jobs in the north, where the CIO – for the most part — welcomed them.
When the war was won and veterans returning home to their jobs and families, women were sent back to the kitchen and black workers were often the next laid off. Pent-up demand, rationing and war-time shortages led to the largest strike wave in US history in 1946. Corporations and politicians teamed up to curb labor’s power with the Taft-Hartley Act, using the Cold War to target those few CIO unions which were actually led by communists, using them to demonize all labor militancy.
Under attack, communists faded away in the labor movement, although many unions retained the democratic structures they created to help empower their members. It is an historical fact that many union Reds, when faced with the real world of work, became better trade unionists than revolutionaries. Others became oppositional, believing that by improving workers’ lives, unions were keeping workers from seeing the need for proletarian revolution.
Despite the rollbacks, the legitimization of unions and the depression-spawned regulation of corporations, along with veterans’ benefits, had created the basis for the growing American middle class. Suburbia boomed and with 35 percent of the workforce in unions by the early 1950s, many non-union employers came close to matching union wages and benefits to keep their employees happy. Health insurance and pensions, along with paid vacations and sick leave, became standard job benefits. Government mandated a minimum wage and maximum hours. A bipartisan Occupational Safety & Health Act was signed into law by President Nixon.
Labor and management had some bitter fights, but an uneasy truce prevailed overall. In 1955 the AFL and the CIO merged, hoping that their combined strength would hold off renewed class warfare. That truce ended in August, 1981, when the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) went on strike for better pay and working conditions. President Ronald Reagan, whose candidacy PATCO had supported, declared the strike “a peril to national safety” and invoked the Taft-Hartley Act to end it, firing the employees and breaking the union.
That sent a signal to employers across the land that almost a half-century of labor-management truce had ended and it was again time for war against the labor movement. Union-busting lawyers and consultants became a growth industry. Concession bargaining, “givebacks” and “takeaways,” became the new normal, and corporations closed plants to move to non-union areas or, even more profitably, to other countries.
Private sector union membership has now dropped to around 6.5 percent, a level not seen since The American Plan of the 1920s. Public sector union membership was at 35 percent, but the recent Supreme Court Janus decision is expected to hit that hard. Janus allows employees who receive the benefits and salaries negotiated by the unions to refuse to pay union dues, in effect depriving the organization of its “fair share” from workers who enjoy the results of the union’s work.
When I was a union rep, an employer told me once, “We have a democratic factory here.” I said, So the workers get to elect their supervisors? He looked at me like I was crazy. I continued: What you have here is a dictatorship, maybe a benign one, but as long as you can fire the workers and they can’t fire you, it’s a dictatorship. Unions help make that dictatorship more tolerable for the employees.
Some unions continue as if it’s business as usual. Others are trying new methods of organizing, and in new areas such as fast-food. Some unions are bureaucratic and happy to just collect dues to pay their officers. Others retain a democratic sense of empowering workers, with decisions made by membership votes. We sometimes forget when a union represents an obviously guilty employee who has been disciplined that the law’s “duty of fair representation” requires it to avoid favoritism. And we sometimes forget that unions are made up of human beings with all their faults and foibles; for those few corrupt union reps who sold out, there is the corrupt boss who bought him.
So on this Labor Day in an era of globalization, continued union-busting and government hostility, it is worth remembering that however slow, and however flawed, unions are the only instrument workers have to counter employer greed and abuse. Remember who invented the weekend!
And at what cost: It is estimated that at least 1300 working men, women and children have been killed during labor disputes between 1850 and 1980 by police, by militias, by posses and vigilantes, and by state executions. That does not include an average of 16 deaths per day from on-the-job injuries since the union roll-back went into high gear in 1981.
Albert Vetere Lannon has belonged to four unions, and had a 21-year career with the West Coast International Longshore & Warehouse Union, including 14 years as an elected officer of the ILWU’s largest mainland local. He was a high school dropout and blue collar worker, obtaining his GED in 1981 and going on to earn three college degrees, and to head the Laney College Labor Studies Program in Oakland. He retired to Arizona in 2001. His history of the Oakland-East Bay labor movement, Fight or Be Slaves (University Press of America) was published in 2000. For his report on how a later generation of communists almost destroyed a union, go to: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/40905739_Angela%27s_children_how_the_communist_legacy_turned_against_itself_in_ILWU_local_6
A new film, Bisbee ’17, about the 1917 copper strike, roundup and “deportation” of striking miners opens at The Loft Theatre in Tucson September 14.