The Power of the Collective: The History of Organized Labor In the United States

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles

The Communist Manifesto

(Marx and Engels)

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx talks about the infinite struggle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat, where the goal of one is to oppress the other (Marx and Engles). While the merits of communism are certainly debatable, one would be hard pressed to find a topic that has stood issue for as long as the massive disparity of power and wealth between the upper and lower classes. Fundamentally, core American values revolve around different freedoms: economic freedom, social freedom, religious freedom, political freedom, and the freedom to be yourself. Over the last hundred years, these many of these freedoms have been partly and fully extended to many different groups; however, for many working Americans, the rags to riches dream is simply unachievable (Isaacs, Julia B). Organized labor, historically in the form of labor unions, try to combat income inequality and provide high paying and safe jobs for an average worker.

The History Of Organized Labor

Organized labor in the United States is a complex and rich historical issue, highlighting the conflict between personal freedom and economic freedom, and, even more central, labor vs capital. Organized labor was officially legalized in the Massachusetts Supreme Court case Commonwealth v. Hunt, decided in 1842. This case set the precedent of self-organization, a principle which would inspire the future American Federation of Labor (AFL) (Brody).

The Long Depression saw the start of organized labor empowering itself The 1883 Federation of Trades and Labor, the immediate precursor to the AFL, pushed for an 8-hour workday, later expanding their platform to later include a minimum wage. Ideas that were once radical were now within reach, all that was left was to fight for them (Schneirov).

Strikers Outside the Fleetwood General Motors Plant in Detroit
Source: (“Fleetwood_Strike.Jpg”)

Collective bargaining was still in its infancy during the Gilded Age, with the main tool of unions being the strike. During the mid-1880s, otherwise known as the Great Upheaval, there were 200,000 strikes in favor of an 8-hour workday alone (Schneirov).  During the Progressive Era, a unionized railroad strike for an 8-hour workday had over 700,000 participants (UNITE 700,000 MEN…). The Gilded Age was a time of massive amounts of income inequality, and organized labor found itself woven into the fabric of the American economy as a check on ballooning disproportionality.

The Great Depression and Beyond

The Great Depression was a time of massive change in labor laws, and countless key pieces of legislation that were passed back then are still incredibly important today for the modern worker. For organized labor, the most critical piece of New Deal legislation was the 1935 Wagner Act, otherwise known as the National Labor Relations Act. The Wagner Act gave unions a plethora of powers, including the ability to collectively bargain, strike, and the option to elect representatives to represent the entirety of the workforce (Brody). The Great Depression was a time of major change in the economic fabric of the United States, but while union rights and protections were at their peak, new Cold War legislation and a shift in public perception would soon change that.

The Taft-Hartley Act was a major blow for organized labor in the US, paving way for Right to Work laws, however, in the face of challenges from the legislature labor unions were still able to wield a sizeable amount power in the US economy for most of the 20th century. The modern problem that thwarts organized labor, while technically starting in the 1940s with Taft-Hartley, commences in 1978, when the public opinion of unions starts changing for the negative. 1978 saw the failure of the Labor Law Reform Act. Dick Lugar, a Senator from Indiana explained in his opposition that the American people no longer feel a need for unions and that there is “no public enthusiasm” for this new bill strengthening organized labor (Lugar).

Lugar is proven correct in 1981 with the infamous PATCO strike, when air traffic controllers marched for increased wages, retirement packages, and a 32-hour work week (Mark). Frankly, this strike failed miserably. Reagan fired 11,000 strikers and crippled PATCO. This failed strike was a defining moment in how organized labor interacts with the employer, and crippled unions for years to come (Strong). Most surprisingly, a majority of Americans supported Reagan’s actions, showing the lack of support unions had from their historical base: the everyday American (Strong).

Image of the 1981 PATCO Strike
Source: (“PATCO-Strike.Jpg”)

Gallup polling continues to prove Lugar’s argument, as in 1981/2 55% of Americans approved of labor unions, a sharp decrease over the 71% of Americans who approved of labor unions in 1965. Labor unions have hovered at 60% approval for the rest of the 20th century, with the exception of the Great Recession (Inc, Gallup).

Source: ( Inc, Gallup )

Just like with union approval rating, union membership has also dropped significantly. 1945 saw the peak of union membership, with 33.4% of American workers belonging to a union. In 2017 only 10.7% of American workers belonged to a union (Ingraham).

Organized Labor Today

In 2018 unions suffered one of their worst legal defeats in modern history with the 5-4 ruling in the case Janus vs AFSCME. The court ruled that public sector unions can not collect agency fees, allowing employees to decide if they wanted to pay their union dues or not. The majority opinion stated that the First Amendment protects a worker’s right to decide where their money goes, especially when politics are involved (Liptak). Janus vs AFSCME has essentially created a nationwide Right to Work law for all public sector unions. The public sector is the only place in the American economy were organized labor possesses any power, as only 6.6% of the private sector is unionized (“The Shrinking American Labor Union”). Right to Work laws are proven to destroy unions, and this extremely recent ruling just created a nationwide Right to Work law attacking the only place unions still have power.

People protesting during the Janus v. AFSME hearing
Source:( “Supreme Court Transcript…”)

While unions have suffered attacks from external sources, one key issue facing labor unions is entirely internal, that being the widespread corruption. Unions are designed in such a way that corruption is very easy to fester, as union elections tend to be dominated by the controlling clique. This prevents union members from acting as a check on their leaders as all potential opposition they could vote for has been forced out by the dominant group (Jacobs). In New York, the leader of the janitor’s union made 450,000 dollars a year living in a penthouse suite. George Meany, one of the leaders of the AFL-CIO, started off at a union that was later found to have extorted 1,000,000 dollars in bribes (Greenhouse). In 1999 AFSCME members were charged with misappropriating 5.7 million dollars. In 2009, Brian McLaughlin, president of NYC Central Labor Council misappropriated 500,000 dollars (Jacobs). While unions are a powerful tool combating income inequality, the issue of corruption needs to be addressed before viewing unions as a solve all solution.

There are real impacts of having weak unions, as more and more wealth goes away from the workers and into the hands of the 10%.
Source: (“As Union Membership Has Fallen…”)

The US is currently ranked towards the bottom of developed countries in terms of union membership. Most Scandinavian countries have union membership sitting at 70% (Gebelhoff). This lack of collective bargaining power has massive ramifications, as there is evidence that unions directly combat income inequality, as the decrease in the percent of aggregate income controlled by the middle class is directly correlated to the amount of membership in the US (Reich). Unionized workers earn on average 20% more than non-union workers in similar jobs (Dynarski).

The Importance of Strong Unions
Source: (Reich)

What Can Be Done?

While the situation may seem bleak for unions, there are simple policy solutions that would make massive differences. Fundamentally all that needs to happen is a reform to the 1947 Taft Hartley Act, specifically section 9(a). Under 9(a), whatever union gains the majority vote of the workers represents every single one. If we were to remove this “exclusive representation” policy, a new marketplace would open up, allowing for unions to only represent their own (due paying) members, and would allow multiple unions in one company, protecting the worker’s rights to free speech (Baird). One issue with this idea is that a bunch of small unions is nowhere near as powerful as a single large one. This idea would force these smaller unions to work together to create change, which could lead to breakdowns when unions can’t compromise.

Another possible solution for the plights of organized labor is the idea of a Worker Self-Directed Enterprise (WSDE). In a WSDE, the company is run like a democracy, with the surplus capital being controlled by the workers. WSDEs are a form of non-exploitative capitalism, a principle that Marx would deem unfeasible. WSDEs are non-exploitative as unlike modern businesses, WSDEs don’t work for the shareholders, they work for the workers (Wolff). If the workers feel as though they are being underpaid, they simply vote to increase their wages with surplus capital.

In a WSDE, unions are obsolete, therefore union corruption, Right to Work laws, and the overall decline in union membership will no longer be problems. Organized labor will be worked into the company directly, giving workers a voice for change (Wolff). While this idea may seem idealistic, the Mondragon Cooperative proves its feasibility employing over 13,000 workers (“Corporate Profile…”). WSDEs are a realistic solution that goes above and beyond that of simply increasing the power of unions, and hopefully, society sees a shift in new startups adopting WSDE practices.

A Worker At the Copreci Cooperative, A Part of the Collective Mondragon Cooperative
Source: (New Report Highlights…)

Of course, as an average American, it is simply unfeasible to drop whatever you are doing and start a WSDE. Yet while most of these lofty goals are out of reach of a single human being, the impact of the individual cannot be discounted. As an individual, you can stay informed about the issues facing organized labor by following the AFL-CIO on twitter. You can join your local union on the picket lines. You can make your vote count towards politicians who are sympathetic to organized labor. You can make an effort to buy products from your local WSDE. You can spread the word about how organized labor is actually an effective tool for combating income inequality. Progress can and will be made in the field of organized labor. Public opinion has been improving towards unions, and more and more politicians are voicing their support for workers in the United States.

Organized labor, whether in the form of unions or WSDEs, act as a check to the unrestrained power of capitalism, giving workers a voice where once they had none. Workers’ rights are still as much an issue today as it was when the ideas of an 8-hour workday were considered radical, and there are real impacts of the lack of collective bargaining in the US. While unions aren’t perfect, they serve as a powerful check on the power of corporations, providing workers with the power to fight for themselves and defend their basic human rights. There are simple and feasible solutions, solutions that can really make a difference for the lives of workers in the United States, and it is now time for Congress to reform labor laws into the 21st century.

For an more extended bibliography click here

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  1. April 25, 2019 by Leo.Patch

    Super interesting and informative page! I really like how you stressed the modern relevance of this topic, too often people see labor struggles as an issue of the past. I really enjoy your Marx quote at the beginning of the page. What inspired you to choose this topic for your project?

    • April 30, 2019 by Jasper M Reid

      I was inspired by a good friend last year telling me all about the WSDE model, which really got me interested in workers rights.
      Thanks for viewing my page!

  2. April 26, 2019 by Taylor Wong

    Your page was really interesting. I liked how you connected the past to the present–how workers in the 1850’s faced some of the same issues that workers face today. One question I have is this: during the recent government shutdown, many government employees were forced to work without pay, and were forbidden from going on strike. Do you think they should be allowed to strike? Why or why not

    • April 30, 2019 by Jasper M Reid

      Super interesting question! I think that the workers should be allowed to strike, but I don’t believe they necessarily should. For example, during WWII labor unions agreed not to strike for the duration of the war, as that is what the times called for. I don’t think that Congress’s utter ineptitude should hurt government employees than it already does, so I feel they should still have the rights to strike, even if it might not be for the overall benefit of the population. Strikes would also put more pressure on the government to solve the shutdown, as evidenced by how many workers at the airport not showing up to work forced Congress to act.

  3. April 27, 2019 by Dominick.Quaye

    Great Page! I loved how we accidentally both used the same Robert Riech video on our pages. I like how your personal video went super in-depth into RTW and I learned so much from it. Your research into the Taft-Harley act and finding tweaks to idealize it was super impressive. One question: What do you think is the “Path forward” for the WSDE model? What actions could be taken to increase their presence in our modern economy?

    • April 30, 2019 by Jasper M Reid

      Personally, I think there isn’t really a government solution to promote WSDEs, with the exception of laws allowing workers first dibs at buying the company if it goes bankrupt. I also think that if more people were to know about WSDEs more startups would adopt their practices.

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