America is a society that is governed by the principle of majority rule. In a free society, some form of majority rule is the most logical application of governance. For centuries, workers have organized under the same principles of majority rule in order to use the collective power of the group to create greater leverage with their employers.
Assemblages of workers have organized into active participants in their own negotiations with employers. The Catholic Knights of Labor, the Industrial Workers of the World, the American Federation of Labor (AF of L) , the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the United Mine Workers, and new and aggressive unions such as SEIU and UNITE have all made their contributions to the betterment of wages and conditions for American workers.
Was it necessary? Centuries after guilds and unions in Europe had been established and respected, unions failed here. In Philadelphia in 1791, for the first time in North America, carpenters went on strike for a 10-hour day and overtime. They lost. It would not be the last time, but the first of many, many times that American workers would lose a battle for better wages and hours. In the Industrial Revolution, men who had craft skills were often thrown out of work by the machine. Twelve-hour days and 64-hour weeks were not uncommon.
In the late 18th century, cordwainers in Philadelphia who went on strike for better wages were jailed on conspiracy charges. Union workers who tried to negotiate less than 80-hour weeks and some minimal working rights for children were considered conspirators and terrorists. .
In the mid-1800s most workers were fighting for a 10-hour day and 60-hour work week. Only by 1868 did any group successfully win an 8-hour day and 48-hour work week. And those employees were government workers and the agreement only existed on paper, never effectively in the workplace.
Children were cheaper to hire and easier to control. Because life was often difficult on farms in the early days of the country, it was not uncommon for children to work along side their parents up to 60 hours a week. It was probably for that reason that children in the industrial workforce were common in cities as well until the early 1920s. Half the workforce in the cotton mills in the Northeast prior to 1900 were children under 15 and some were as young as 7. years old. In 1910, there were still 2 million children under 15 working in the labor force, even in difficult and often dangerous work, such as in coal mines. To put that in further perspective, in December of 1906 alone, some 3242 miners were killed in mining accidents.
The period of prosperity after the First World War was a setback for labor. Financiers and manufacturers built large enterprises and used much of their success to build the idea that labor unions were no longer necessary. American business had solved the problems of boom and bust. Prosperity through rising incomes would benefit all. Workers believed them and labor unions lost 2 million workers. Then came October 1929.
In the early 1930s there were few strikes, as the impact of the Great Depression began to take hold in the American consciousness. But after a few years it became clear that the promises of the 1920s were at the very least wrong and at worst…total fabrications of the large financiers. Now the wealthy industrialists had more control than ever. Many American citizens were destitute, reliant upon family and charity. They resisted any further decline in wages with the same militancy that had built the unions over the previous decades.
By 1932, 225,000 people were unemployed in Michigan. Over 4,000 unemployed workers marched on the Ford Plant to demonstrate against layoffs and wage cuts. They were subdued and turned away by the Ford security forces and police. Wage cuts and firings in Harlan County, Kentucky resulted in conflict and several deaths beginning the long history of that area’s legendary labor struggles against the coal mining companies. In 1933, there were strikes in places all over the country, as distant from one another as California, New York City, Wisconsin and New Mexico.
Between 1932 and 1934 there were 19 major strikes in the United States, from farm workers to longshoremen to machinists to textile workers. And each one marked an incident of violent confrontation between the economic powers of the time and the workers who were struggling for living wages. In that era when one out of four workers was unemployed, long before there was unemployment insurance, hundreds of workers died for a living wage and the search for some small speck of job security.
Finally, FDR and the federal government stepped in with the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, setting the ground rules for labor and management disputes.
But this merely provided the rules for the fight. It finally gave the unions a fair chance. Between 1935 and 1941 when the Second World War began, there were another 30 major strikes in the coal, auto, appliance, newspaper, aviation and service industries. Even the elves who drew the cartoons at Disney struck, perhaps for sharper pencils, in 1941.
In one of these incidents, referred to as the “Memorial Day Massacre” in 1937, a group of United Steel Workers were marching from their headquarters to the Republic Steel plant to protest the company’s refusal to honor a contract. When police ordered them to stop and they argued that they had the right to assemble, police fired into the crowd, wounding fifty workers, killing ten and beating at least one hundred more.
As the war ended, as soon as 1945, unions began to pursue wage-and-hour issues aggressively. Men who had risked their lives to save their country, a country that had been called upon to save the world…were not about to be shunted aside by major industrialists. The union movement grew to its peak in the mid-1950s.
The unions fought bravely for the right to earn a decent day’s pay for a decent day’s work after having been shot down at Homestead and at Ludlow and losing 16 lives in the Pullman Strike at the end of the 19th Century. At last, after years of strikes in which it was not uncommon for police to fire directly into a crowd of unarmed protestors, killing a dozen or so, the United Mine Workers, in 1898 won the 8-hour day for miners.
The AF of L and CIO and IWW fought relentlessly for the 8-hour day, and while some mills and some building trades and printers and others gradually began to win the 8-hour day, most non-union workers were still toiling for 12-14 hours per day, 6 or 7 days a week, into the early 20th Century.
But after losing battle after battle, after being accused of being traitors, conspirators, Bolsheviks, and anarchists, American unions stayed the course. In 1916, the Adamson Act ordered the 8-hour day. While it also ordered a 48-hour work week for railroad workers, others, like packinghouse workers were still working 60-hour weeks.
The struggle of workers has been punctuated by numerous incidents both humiliating and violent. Workers were beaten, shot and often killed by police, by militia or private security forces called in to break a strike. A single moment of anarchy at the Haymarket gathering in Chicago in 1886, where a policeman died and for which eventually several pro-labor men were executed, set back the labor movement by 40 years.
When the Depression showed that it was time to balance the scales. With one out of four men out of work and the nation in crisis, the President decided to establish a stronger labor market by establishing minimum wages and maximum hours of work. The Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 with the power to investigate and decide on charges of unfair labor practices and to conduct elections in which workers would have the opportunity to decide whether they wanted to be represented by a union.
The NLRB also looked into matters such as improving personnel by better training and the development of standard procedures in different work fields. The NLRB was given more extensive powers than the much weaker organization of the same name established under previous administrations. Union membership began to grow. During the war and immediately after the war union membership continued to grow, and while there were strikes, the violence and prejudice of the public and the courts began to lessen.
After decades more of strikes for reasonable working hours, another legislative breakthrough came during the Great Depression. FDR was able to ram through the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 which decreed time-and-one-half wages for any hours worked over 44 hours per week. Later amendments decreed a minimum wage and increases to the minimum wage.
By 1953, nearly one out of three people were members of a union. But over time, union membership slowed because of technology and the reduction in the number of union jobs and from changes in technology. Still there were 22 million union workers in 1975. But the trend continued down until the percentage of workers was only 13.9% by the year 2000. In fact, even though the workforce in the United States has doubled in the last fifty years, the number of union members in the workforce is approximately the same number as it was in 1952.
In 1955, the AFL-CIO was formed from what is now 56 different major unions, culminating in the largest union organization, encompassing over 11 million members. While the reactionary groups supporting large corporations and large international commercial and financial interests may disparage the union movement as Socialist or even Communist, unions see their role very simply. Their job, as they have stated it, is to improve the wage, hour and working conditions of the average working man. They are ready to support any group whose policies seek to help the worker and against any organization that seeks to be authoritarian, totalitarian, terrorist or in any way seeks to suppress individual liberties and freedom of association.
Since the 1960s many things have changed in American society. The acceleration of technology and the ascension of the global market among other things have led to a reduction in the labor movement both in absolute terms and as a percentage of the population. In the early 1970s and into the 1980s a growing consulting effort began to succeed, showing corporations how to avoid unions or how to rid themselves of unions. This union avoidance philosophy took hold even more completely as Conservative political philosophy began to take hold in the latter 20 years of the 20th Century.
Not only did union avoidance consulting firms create and spread fear of union involvement by alleging catastrophic results among major corporations, not a difficult task, but they also expanded their anti-union programs. Some consultants were very effective, thwarting union organizing through direct mail, advertising and public relations campaigns, even bribery and coercion of employees.
By the mid-1980s there were over 1,000 union avoidance consultants in the United States. And the Administration of Ronald Reagan made it clear in no uncertain terms that this was the time for corporations to rid themselves of unions altogether. And they have tried. Anti-union consultants began discussing and writing openly of the future as a “union-free environment.”
Do the corporations spend a lot of time trying to demolish unionism? You decide. Just one example is a company in California that has over 60 consultants and over 1300 corporations as clients. Their expertise cuts across 50 different industries and they have offices in 23 states. This firm maintains that it has a 96% success rate even in difficult situations, namely where workers have already signed cards indicating their intention to form a union. The client list is so top-drawer and so-well known, suffice to say that it is any one of the Fortune Top 100 corporations on down. The system is ubiquitous.
Law firms are involved. One has over 370 attorneys on staff and over 20 offices around the country. A law firm wrote the principle handbook on how to avoid union organizing. Using carefully chosen rhetoric, some law firms will use terms in their sales pitches to corporations that designate unions and union organizers as “toxic” and suggest they avoid unions “like the plague.” They make it clear that, if hired, they will metaphorically “go to war” to rid the corporation of a union.
Some of the campaigns were so vicious and outrageous and ran into the millions of dollars that the AFL-CIO prepared evidence and lodged a complaint with the Clinton Administration’s Department of Labor. This resulted in some requirements that these firms at least maintain accounting to determine from what organizations they were receiving funds. Even this relatively mild requirement was eliminated as soon as the Bush Administration took office.
Consultants go so far as to pay astronomical salaries to hire away some pro-union advocates. One firm hired as the President of its health care anti-union group the former head of the California nurses union. Health care itself is one of the key targets of union-busters these days, as more manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas and the service economy has become larger, 17% of the economy overall.
The result of all this anti-union activity is that union membership, outside of government unions, stands at roughly 8%, the lowest level of union membership since 1920.
Maybe this economy will awaken the public to what it has lost. Maybe the public will recall the sacrifices that were made to get to the 8-hour day and the 40-hour week…the shootings, the beatings and the deaths. Maybe the people will not want to return to the days of child labor and weeks of work that did not include weekends off.
If the public does wake up, let’s hope it happens soon.