“I’m Stickin’ to the Union…”

“If I went to work in a factory, the first thing I would do is join a union.” Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In the mid 20th Century, back in the day when the postwar United States was the preeminent world power, we could boast a robust and growing organized labor movement which improved conditions for working Americans — union and non-union alike — and helped to build the great middle class in this country. But the labor movement – union men and women alike – paid in blood to give generations of their fellow workers a share of the American Dream.

Big Business didn’t just give Americans the 5-day working week, the 8-hour workday, and vacation and overtime pay. The Robber Barons didn’t give up Dickensian child labor without a fight. Do you think you’d have a pension today if your union brothers and sisters hadn’t fought for it? Many brave men and women in the Labor Movement died to win these basic workplace conditions. We take for granted so much of what organized labor earned for us over nearly two centuries of heroic struggle.

But the battle for workers’ rights didn’t end back in the 1930’s and 40’s. There’s been no final victory. Rather, the struggle for economic justice in the workplace is ongoing. And for the past three decades, American workers have been losing what little we’ve gained.

Ever since President Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers strike in the summer of 1981, the right wing has mounted a steady counter-attack against organized labor. In 1983, 20% of U.S. workers were union members. By 2009, only 12% of American workers were unionized. Today, 30 years after Reagan renewed the right wing assault on labor unions, only one in 10 workers are union members. That’s right. Union membership has been cut by half since Reagan took office.

And the anti-union drumbeat continues.

Today, revenue-strapped GOP governors complain that hard-earned public employee pensions are generous boondoggles we can’t afford. Teachers unions are constantly under attack — as though earning about $40 thousand dollars a year for heroically schooling America’s youth (while working most weekends grading papers and spending personal funds for school supplies) is too high a price to pay for an educated electorate. Right wing politicians call out nurses and firefighters as overpaid unionists with luxurious benefit packages. Meanwhile, in the halls of Congress, contemporary union-busters are taking steps to weaken unions and limit American workers’ ability to bargain collectively.

Greedy elitists have been working very hard for the past three decades to give unions a bad name.

The Republicans and their corporate overlords have managed to confuse a shockingly large percentage of blue-collar lunch-bucket working Americans to buy into their anti-union rhetoric – despite the fact that the gap between executive and worker pay has become truly obscene.

In 1965, American CEOs earned 24 times what the average worker in their company took home. By 1978, the CEOs got paid 35 times more than their average employee. That figure rose to 71 times more in 1989. By 2005, CEO pay had risen astronomically.

Blue collar, Joe the Plumber Republicans might be shocked to learn that the average American CEO in 2005 earned 262 times the pay of their average worker. In other words, CEOs earned more in one day than an average worker earned in 52 weeks. And in the last five years, it’s only gotten worse. Today, according to the accounting firm, Towers Perrin, the average CEO is paid 500 times more than the average worker.

And that’s only half the story. Working class fans of conservative supply side economic theory should know: nothing trickled down.

While the top corporate executives were lining their pockets, the wages of working Americans declined in real dollars.

In 1979 the average hourly wage in the U.S. was equal to $15.91 in 2001 dollars. By 1989 it was only $16.63 per hour: a gain of just 7 measly cents a year for the entire Reagan decade. (In case you already forgot: CEO pay during that same period rose from 35 times what workers earned to 71 times what the guy on the line made.)

During the Clinton years, there was a slight up-tick in workers wages. Between 1995 and 2000, the average wage rose to $18.33 per hour, driven in part by higher pay for college-educated workers in the tech and service sectors.

But for the more than 100 million laborers without a college degree, average inflation-adjusted hourly wages at the end of 2000 were less than they were in 1979.

That’s what blue collar Reagan Democrats got for switching their allegiance from a union-friendly party to a union-busting party. Reagan and his corporate cronies waved the flag at hardworking blue collar Americans, puffed them up with pride about that “shining city on a hill”, riled them up about abortion and gay marriage – and then robbed them blind. The right wing is still doing it. And working class people are still falling for it.

The shameless profit-grab at the top of the corporate food chain has taken place while for the past 30 years U.S. worker productivity rose steadily as wages remained flat.

Since Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, American worker productivity has increased by nearly 40%. Yet, I remind you, real hourly wages for workers have declined since Reagan’s inauguration.

So who got the reward from all that increased worker productivity? Who got the big performance bonuses? The CEO’s, upper management and Wall Street middlemen did. (Of course, today’s grease monkey, shipping clerk, loading dock foreman, or self-styled Joe plumber can dream of one day becoming a CEO or stock trader himself himself. Or he can play the lottery.)

Workers have fallen behind while the fat cats stuffed record profits into their bulging pockets. (All the while crying that the unions were making it impossible for their companies to compete.) Yet the corporate elite aren’t satiated with their outsized slice of the economic pie. So, their right wing tools in government are stepping up their attacks on organized labor.

In my own home state of Ohio, newly-elected Republican Governor John Kasich proposes to deny the right of 14,000 state-financed child care and home care workers to unionize. He also wants to ban strikes by teachers, much the way some states bar strikes by the police and firefighters.

“If they want to strike, they should be fired,” Mr. Kasich said in a speech. “They’ve got good jobs, they’ve got high pay, they get good benefits, a great retirement. What are they striking for?”

By the way, this is the same Governor Kasich who has complained (rightly) that white-collar state employees are not paid enough to attract the best candidates to public service in Ohio. (In the GOP worldview, what’s good for college educated white-collar workers need not be shared by lowly blue-collar workers. Yet they have the nerve to call Democrats “elitists”.)

The right wing attacks the labor movement to convince blue collar Americans that unions are simply greedy and corrupt. This anti-union calumny is promoted by the GOP and bankrolled by big business execs and Wall Street moneymen whose own greed and corruption was manifest in the final years of the Bush administration. (BTW, it was blue-collar working Americans whose hard-earned payroll and income taxes bailed these A-holes out.)

Of course, there have certainly been some illegal shenanigans now and then in the annals of organized labor. (We still don’t know where Jimmy Hoffa is buried.) But that doesn’t change the fact that the union movement in America has been a force for good in this country. And that union men and women paid for what we now take for granted in the workplace with their freedom and their lives.

Listen up, my working class friends who vote Republican: I’m talking to YOU. It’s time for a history lesson. A history, alas, that you can no longer read about in most public school textbooks, thanks to conservative members of your local school board.

April 27, 1825: Carpenters in Boston are the first to strike for a 10-hour workday.

July 1835: Child laborers in the silk mills of Paterson, New Jersey strike so they only have to work an 11-hour day — 6 days a week.

July 1851: Two railroad strikers are shot dead by the state militia in Portage, New York.

January 13, 1874: Unemployed workers demonstrating in NYC’s Tompkins Square Park are attacked by mounted cops who charge into the crowd, beating men, women and children with billy-clubs. There are hundreds of casualties, but the Police Commissioner says, “It was the most glorious sight I ever saw.”

July 14, 1877: The “Battle of the Viaduct” in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. Protesting members of the Chicago German Furniture Workers Union are put down by federal troops (recently returned from an Indian massacre) killing 30 workers and wounding more than 100.

September 5, 1882: 30,000 workers march in the first Labor Day parade in New York City.

May 1, 1886: Bay View Tragedy. About 2,000 Polish workers walk off their jobs in Milwaukee in protest of the ten-hour workday. They march through the city, gathering other workers until they are 16,000 strong and gather at Rolling Mills, sleeping in nearby fields. Wisconsin Governor Jeremiah Rusk calls out the state militia, and on May 5th, as the workers chant for an eight-hour workday, the commanding officer of the militia orders his men to shoot into the crowd (some of whom were armed with sticks, bricks, and scythes) killing seven, including a child.

October 4, 1887: The Louisiana Militia, aided by bands of “prominent citizens,” shoot 35 unarmed black sugar workers striking to gain a dollar-per-day wage. They also lynch two strike leaders.

May 11 to July 10, 1894: A nationwide strike against the Pullman Company begins when workers walk off the job after their wages are drastically reduced. On July 5, the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago is set ablaze, and the mobs begin burning and looting railroad cars and fighting police in the streets. On July 10, 14,000 federal and state troops succeeded in putting down the strike, killing 34 American Railway Union members. Strike leaders, including Eugene Debs, are imprisoned for violating injunctions, causing disintegration of the union.

September 1897: The Lattimer Massacre. 19 unarmed striking coal miners are killed and 36 wounded by a county sheriff’s posse for refusing to disperse near Hazelton, PA.  Most of the victims are shot in the back.

March 25, 1911: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, occupying the top three floors of a ten-story building in New York City, is consumed by fire. 147 people, mostly women and young girls working in sweatshop conditions are killed. Greatly adding to the death toll was the incredible fact that Triangle bosses had locked the factory doors from the outside to keep the ladies from taking breaks.

June 11, 1913: Cops gun down three maritime workers (one of whom is killed) who are striking against the United Fruit Company in New Orleans.

1914: According to the Commission on Industrial Relations, approximately 35,000 workers were killed in industrial accidents and 700,000 workers were injured in the U.S.

April 20, 1914: The “Ludlow Massacre.” In an attempt to force strikers at Colorado’s Ludlow Mine Field to go back to work, company “guards” (hired by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and other mine operators) attack a union tent camp with machine guns, then set it afire — killing five men, two women and twevlve children.

January 9, 1915: The famous labor leader Joe Hill is arrested in Salt Lake City and convicted on trumped up murder charges. Despite worldwide protests and two attempts to intervene by President Woodrow Wilson. Hill is later executed. In a letter written shortly before his death, Hill urged his supporters, “Don’t mourn – organize!”

August 19, 1916: Strikebreakers attack picketing strikers in Everett, Washington, while local police refuse to intervene.

Three days later, 22 union men attempting to speak out are arrested. On October 30, vigilantes force union speakers to run a gauntlet, whipping, tripping and kicking them, and impaling them against a spiked cattle guard at the end of the gauntlet.

In response, the union calls for a meeting on November 5 – but when the union men arrive, they are fired upon. Seven people are killed in The Everett Massacre (also known as Bloody Sunday) and 50 are wounded. An unknown number wind up missing.

March 15, 1917: The Supreme Court approves the Eight-Hour Act under the threat of a national railway strike.

August 26, 1919: United Mine Worker organizer Fannie Sellins is gunned down by mining company goons.

March 7, 1932: Police kill striking workers at Ford’s Dearborn, Michigan plant.

October 10, 1933: 18,000 cotton workers go on strike in Pixley, California. Four are killed before the workers win a pay hike.

1934: During the Electric Auto-Lite Strike in Toledo, Ohio, 1,300 National Guardsmen including three machine gun companies are called in to break up as many as 10,000 strikers and protesters. Two strikers are killed and over two hundred wounded.

September 1-22, 1934: A strike in Woonsocket, Rhode Island results in the deaths of three workers. Over 420,000 workers ultimately go on strike.

1935: The National Labor Relations Act is passed. It guarantees covered workers the right to organize and join labor movements, to choose representatives bargain collectively, and to strike.

May 30, 1937: Police kill 10 and wound 30 during the “Memorial Day Massacre” at the Republic Steel plant in Chicago.

June 25, 1938: The Wages and Hours Act passes, banning child labor and setting the 40-hour work week. It establishes minimum wages and maximum hours for all workers engaged in covered “interstate commerce.”

That’s the basic progressive history of labor unions before Ronald Reagan (himself a former Screen Actors Guild union president) began his successful counter-attack against organized labor.

The fact is that unions have a positive impact on the wages and working conditions of unionized and non-unionized workers alike.

Unions raise the pay of unionized workers by roughly 20% — and raise compensation, including both wages and benefits, by 28%. Plus, unions raise wages more for blue-collar than for white-collar workers — and more for workers who do not have a college degree. Unions force nonunion employers to follow suit. Organized labor’s impact on total nonunion wages is almost as big as its impact on union wages.

Wake up, working class Americans! Conservative GOP anti-union politicians are not on your side. Organized labor is on your side.

As Woody Guthrie sang, “You can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union!”

Here’s the legendary Pete Seeger (who I’ve had the honor to interview and see perform) with Woody’s son, Arlo Guthrie singing “Union Maid”.

And finally, here’s old Pete throwing down the gauntlet. “Which Side Are You On?”


Filed under History, Politics

13 responses to ““I’m Stickin’ to the Union…”

  1. As the proud president of Union Local 3660 AFT/IFT (the teachers’ association where I work), I thank you.
    Unions are not something to scrape off your shoe.
    Unions are not only important in the years that we negotiate contracts.
    Thanks, Paul – I know which side I’m on.

  2. Stewart

    Terrific article. Gives a lot to think about and tells truths that I have tried to relate to others. If you don’t mind I would like to show this particular blog to the naysayers as a quality, well researched essay.

    • Please share it with anyone you feel should read it. It took a while to get all this information in one place. Which is sad — because every American kid should be able to read all this in one textbook before they graduate from high school.

  3. Linda E.

    Well the title of the blog sure caught my eye, Paul. Cuz there’s a bit of that song sung in the new Kushner play. The one I’ve been working on for a couple of years. “Oh you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the Union…” (And my character is a Labor lawyer. So this stuff has been in the forefront of my brain for a couple of years.)
    Thank you, sir. Love all the images, too.

  4. Fat Dave

    Bravo Pablo! In Union there is strength!

  5. rob

    American union membership in the private sector has in recent years fallen under 9% — levels not seen since 1932. Unions allege that employer-incited opposition has contributed to this decline in membership.
    Unions are currently advocating new federal legislation that would allow workers to elect union representation by simply signing a support card. The current process established by federal law requires at least 30% of employees to sign cards for the union, then wait 45 to 90 days for a federal official to conduct a secret ballot election in which a simple majority of the employees must vote for the union in order to obligate the employer to bargain. Unions report that, under the present system, many employers use the 45 to 90 day period to conduct anti-union campaigns.
    During the 2008 elections, the Employee Free Choice Act had widespread support of many legislators in the House and Senate, and of the President. Since then, support for the “card check” provisions of the EFCA subsided substantially.

    Union membership had been steadily declining in the US since 1983. In 2007, the labor department reported the first increase in union memberships in 25 years and the largest increase since 1979. Most of the recent gains in union membership have been in the service sector while the number of unionized employees in the manufacturing sector has declined. Most of the gains in the service sector have come in West Coast states like California where union membership is now at 16.7% compared with a national average of about 12.1%.[7]
    Union density (the percentage of workers belonging to unions) has been declining since the late 1940s, however. Almost 36% of American workers were represented by unions in 1945. Historically, the rapid growth of public employee unions since the 1960s has served to mask an even more dramatic decline in private-sector union membership.
    At the apex of union density in the 1940s, only about 9.8% of public employees were represented by unions, while 33.9% of private, non-agricultural workers had such representation. In this decade, those proportions have essentially reversed, with 36% of public workers being represented by unions while private sector union density had plummeted to around 7%. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics most recent survey indicates that union membership in the US has risen to 12.4% of all workers, from 12.1% in 2007. For a short period, private sector union membership rebounded, increasing from 7.5% in 2007 to 7.6% in 2008. [8] However, that trend has since reversed. In 2009, the union density for private sector stood at 7.2%. [9]
    (From Wikipedia)

  6. Mr. T

    As a worker that has paid into 5 unions, and still has active membership in 1, I appreciate the history given in this blog. I do take exception, however, at what is omitted for the sake of what then comes off as propaganda to me.

    You begin with your rant against ‘the right wing’ and act as if they want teachers to earn only pennies for their important work, or as if the ‘right wing’ doesn’t recognize the importance of firemen and policemen. Those are patently unfair and inaccurate accusations. I am a card carrying member of the so called ‘right wing’ and I feel teachers, fire, and police are answering a higher calling and deserve every penny they get.

    The objection from the right wing, particularly about teachers unions, comes not about pay, but about tenure and the lack of merit based pay. Merit pay is not only fair, but it is reasonable. I understand why tenure exists, and there’s some sense to it, but it cannot and should not be an insurmountable wall of protection for an under performing teacher who possesses tenure merely for time spent on the job.

    And I’d love to give firemen and policemen the whole ‘farm’, and they should earn very good wages as they serve our communities, but where else in the world, other than in union protected jobs, can a worker earn as much in retirement as they do when working? The answer is ‘nowhere’ (except for maybe congress ;-).

    You may counter that this scenario is rare, but even retirement that comes very near a working salary shows great potential to break the bank – just ask California (Democrat controlled for decades) or Michigan (Democrat controlled for decades) as they address their public pension lopsidedness. How can you blame that on the nasty, villainous right wing?

    You can’t.

    Workers should be saving and providing for their own retirement, as much as they can, and the lions share of the country, by your own statistics, does just that.

    So laud much of the work of the unions, rightly so, but be willing to remove your myopia to see that not all that the unions have done is perfect, not all corporations and employers are evil, and contrary voices can provide balance to the discourse.

    • Thank you, Mr. T, for taking the time to read my post. I don’t consider my article propaganda because I didn’t also make the right’s case against public employee pensions and teacher tenure. The anti-union forces have plenty of spokesmen to carry their water on those issues. I agree that the rare underperforming (and plain lousy) teachers should not be protected by tenure. But I have yet to see a fair and accurate way to determine which teachers are underperforming. I think you’ll find that teachers in wealthy, well-funded schools and districts with affluent students perform “well”, while teachers struggling in poverty-blighted schools often show less than satisfactory results.

      And show me the numbers on firemen and cop pensions. I seriously doubt any of them are making as much in retirement as they did on the job.

      And please show me how a teacher making $40,000 a year with 2 or 3 children to raise can save enough money on her own for a decent retirement — especially with the cost of heath insurance? Sure, maybe if both parents are working full time. Then whose minding the kids? The babysitter? The nanny? Who pays for that?

      What IS breaking the bank in California and Michigan is the unfair tax structure where working people pay a greater part of their income than the wealthy. Bush’s tax giveaways to the top 2% — especially the big breaks on investment income — have bled the national coffers. As a result, states get less from Uncle Sam. (And, in the case of California, short-sighted anti-tax policies like Prop 13 kept the state from taking advantage of a 20-year boom in real estate values.)

      I don’t consider the right wing evil. I never said that in my post. I see the right as short-sighted, self-interested, and happy as long as “I got mine.”

      The unions have not been perfect. There’s been graft and corruption. But recent events have made it clear that Wall Street has the unions beat for that kind of misbehavior. However, without the unions over the years, we’d be a third world country as far as life for working men and women goes. If believing that truth means I’m being myopic, please pardon me for my myopia.

  7. George

    Some of the worst acts of thuggary have been committed by union leaders.

  8. Merle

    Dear Paul,

    you may be interested in the following art installation I am involved in curating to mark the centenary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

    The victims of the Triangle fire are commemorated in museums and many books. But in places like Bangladesh and Cambodia there are so many garment fires that they barely register (including one that happened on the 14th of Dec 2010 in which at least 29 garment workers were killed).

    Adeola Enigbokan and I are premiering an audio visual installation which seeks to highlight the contemporary and global reverberations of the Triangle Fire:

    Terrible Karma: Reverberations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

    Created and Curated by Adeola Enigbokan and Merle Patchett

    Terrible Karma is a mobile audio-visual installation that explores the contemporary, global reverberations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, on it’s 100th anniversary.

    It brings together oral histories of Triangle fire survivors, audio recordings of mega-scale garment factories in Qingyuan, China, and protest songs by present-day garment workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia.

    The title, Terrible Karma, refers to a protest song sung by female garment workers at a rally in Phnom Penh (July 2010), as well as the idea that events of the garment industry past haunt the present – that injustice always comes back. The work arises out of the artists’ – Adeola Enigboken and Merle Patchett – mutual desire to mark the centenary of the Triangle factory fire whilst exploring the constraints and conditions in which garment workers continue to live, work and die.

    The work takes to the streets’ on March 25th, 2011. The sounds and photographs it presents will be projected from a van driven through the streets of New York, stopping at various points to allow passers-by to experience the work from inside the van’s claustrophobic confines.

    For those not in New York, the work is available to experience and download from the link supplied below.

    To download and for full details go to:


    • Thank you, Merle.

      It’s frightening and sad to think that the 100-year old lessons of the tragic horror that was the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire have not been learned. But it’s sadder to think that, of course, they have — but that greed trumps safety. Thank you for letting us know about your work. I will pass this info along as widely as I can.

  9. I couldn\’t agree more about ivnnlviog the unions more directly in coordinated campaigning in a myriad of ways. Could I suggest, however, that we need to think about our position vis a vis the unions. There has been a tendency to distance the party from the unions in recent years, in reacting to a discourse of vested interests that seems to have become a media / political norm. The actions of the Labour Party in recent years have threatened our relationship with the unions, most notably not to fully repeal anti-union legislation put in place by the Thatcher administration.We need to reaffirm our total commitment to the unions as a precursor to any significant change. not only are the unions and Labour inextricably linked in their historical development, but, despite significant changes in patterns of work and employment, and stringent anti-labour laws in the UK, the unions represent a huge number of ordinary working people, the people for whom Labour ought to represent.Until the Labour Party Trades Union relationship is strengthened and brought back to its pre 1980s level, any other attempts at progress will simply resemble liberal Democrat froth.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s