“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?”