My grandfather was a member of a union. So were my fellow factory workers during my college vacations. (As a summer worker, I was not asked to join.) Since I barely spoke with my grandfather, I never heard from him what he thought of his union, but that he joined the strike and stayed out for its duration indicates a good deal of loyalty. Mostly I heard about the union from my grandfather’s son, and this talk was not so much about the union and wages, but about the union and working conditions. My father told me stories about how management would order workers to do unnecessarily dangerous things that the union would prevent and that the union forced the company to reduce the risks of silicosis, measures that would not have occurred without union bargaining and pressures.
I did hear the union workers at the factory talk about their union. This came up frequently at the lunch break and before and after work (I carpooled with workers to get to the factory a few miles out of town) because bargaining was going on with a strike date looming in the middle of summer. (The potential strike presented an existential dilemma for me. My family supported union causes, and I did know Solidarity Forever. On the other hand, I was dating one of the management’s daughters. I was saved from resolving the conflict between principles and sex when at the last minute the company and the union signed a new contract. Years later, I was represented by a union when I was an attorney for the New York City Legal Aid Society, and strikes again posed dilemmas for me, but that is a story for another time.)
The factory workers were not dissatisfied with their working conditions, but they saw the union as essential for getting fair wages. Without the collective action of a union, they knew that they would get paid less and simply have no alternative but to accept whatever the company offered to pay them. They knew that if the company were to make the choice of more money for the owners and higher wages for the worker, the result would not be more money in their paychecks. Individual workers had no leverage, no bargaining power.
Those days, however, are now distant. Unions have much less authority than they did back then and in other countries now. Unions have been denigrated since the beginning of the organized labor movement, but that denigration took especial hold over the last forty or fifty years. How often have you heard something positive about unions? On the other hand, you probably did hear about featherbedding and union corruption. Of course, many unions have had a corruption problem, but if you pay the least little attention, you know that many corporations have had and continue to have corruption issues and the equivalent of management featherbedding in the form of lavish pay and perks. Corporate corruption, however, does not mean we think that all corporations are bad for the country. In contrast, a corrupt union bleeds over to other unions. A corrupt union tends to make us think that unionization is generally a bad thing.
Ofttimes unions have been a scapegoat for various economic woes. At the time that Japanese car companies were first making major inroads into the American market and American automobile makers started to decline, I was at a party where I met Tina who worked for a major investment house. She railed against the auto unions and blamed them for the problems of General Motors and their brethren. I found this strange. The Japanese car companies were then known to take much better care of their workers than their American counterparts. That didn’t seem to indicate that the unions were the real cause of the problems. On the other hand, Japan car companies had devised a superior just-in-time system of assembly line production that the Americans did not have. The Japanese were simply more efficient. The foreign companies were better managed, but for Tina, and many others, it was easier to blame unions than to criticize the American corporate structure.
It is not just narratives like Tina’s that has made the American corporate war on unions successful. It has been aided by laws passed by conservative states and legal decisions by conservative courts. It has also been furthered by our immigration laws and enforcement. Periodically, ICE raids a plant and arrests hundreds of undocumented aliens working there. Gee, how does it happen that those large numbers were at the same workplace? Did management not know they were there? Perhaps such a raid seems to harm the companies because they lose a workforce, but instead the raids aid the owners. The workers are soon replaced, and a message is sent out to them and to others in different companies: Don’t draw attention to yourselves by unionizing or complaining about wages or unsafe and other working conditions. Such attention can lead to your deportation. Until such raids have serious consequences for the companies and management, the raids just nurture low wages and dangerous work environments.
The number of unionized private sector jobs is about one-fifth of what it once was, well under ten percent. The consequences for the country have been immense. Studies have concluded that a major cause of our rising income inequality has been the decline of unions. It is not just that the wages in what were unionized jobs have not kept pace, but also that when unions were strong, companies often increased wages to stave off unionization efforts. (For an informative discussion of the causes of this inequality, see Kurt Andersen, Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America, A Recent History.)
There has also been a political fallout. Who you hang out with affects your views. Politicians no longer seek out union support as they once did. They hang out with corporate and other business leaders. That is where the money is, and money increasingly controls our political process. In a recent election cycle, business outspent labor by sixteen to one, with businesses spending $3 billion on lobbying and unions spending $48 million.
Unions in the past worked for laws that helped all working people, but now they have little effect. This is part of the reason that, unlike in other developed countries, we do not have guaranteed paid parental leave, paid vacations or sick days, and the minimum wage as a percentage of the overall median wage is lower than in other developed countries. Instead, we have seen the rise of unpaid interns in the work force and workers forced into arbitration systems that favor corporations. We have also seen a major shift to temporary and contract workers.
This is not to suggest that everything unions might advocate for is necessarily a good thing, but as the union voice is increasingly drowned out by the big money coming from a relative handful of rich people something important has been lost in our country. (If you want to be depressed, read Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer.)Unions may still be in the dining room, but they are at the kids table and seldom heard.
On Labor Day we can have picnics and hit the back-to-school sales, but the day was meant to be a commemoration of organized labor. We have politicians who proclaim a concern for blue collar workers, but our present political system is rigged so that labor can be largely ignored, and corporations can be served. Without a strong labor movement, the country is not as well off as it ought to be. Let’s put Labor back into Labor Day.
And I will think of my Grandfather.