Unionists have never enjoyed true security in America. During the early nineteenth century, they got hauled into court for “conspiring to restrain trade.” In the heyday of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, they got accused of fomenting violence and revolution. During the first decade of the Cold War, they had to purge their ranks of radical activists or be slammed as “soft on Communism.” Since the 1970s, they have been condemned as a greedy and privileged “special interest”—even as their numbers and political clout keep dropping.
Now they have to figure out how to turn back a fresh wave of conservative laws, such as the one enacted this week in Michigan, which aim to make existing unions too poor and powerless to affect conditions in all but a few workplaces. The very term “right to work” puts labor on the defensive in a culture which cherishes individual liberty. If unions are to come back, they will have to respond persuasively to the question: What exactly have they done for this country?
The answer begins but doesn’t end with economics. When unions signed contracts with many of the biggest corporations in the land from the 1930s to the 1950s, even workers in most non-union firms got a boost in wages from their employers, who were willing to share more of their profits in order to prevent having to negotiate away any of their authority. But collective bargaining was and remains a much better deal. In 2011, full-time union workers earned a median weekly wage $209 higher than their non-union counterparts. If sustained over the course of a thirty-year career, that difference would amount to more than $325,000.
Morever, the advantages of a unionized workplace have always transcended the size of one’s paycheck. Among the things that separate a good job from a lousy one are elements which organized labor struggled over decades to win: protection for health and safety and fair compensation for accidents on the job, free or affordable medical insurance and regular vacations, a procedure for handling grievances and an eight-hour day.
The practice of seniority, which foes of unions claim just favors the old and slow over the young and efficient, replaced an arbitrary system that once enabled employers or their foremen to fire anyone at any time and without cause. When the principle of “last hired, first fired” was first written into contracts in the late 1930s, it did result in disproportionate layoffs of female and non-white workers. Yet, inevitably, over time, it helped veteran employees of both genders and all races, and younger members, with an eye on the future, embraced it too.
The good that unions have done also stretches beyond the workplace itself. Indeed, the reason that generations of conservatives have tried to weaken or destroy labor’s power is because they detested its grander political vision. The first unions that emerged in the antebellum era advocated free public education for all and an immediate end to slavery. During the early twentieth century, the reformist AFL backed the public ownership of streetcars, railroads, and electrical power while the revolutionary IWW endorsed woman suffrage and welcomed members of all races—at a time when segregation was the rule in nearly every other American institution. Later, in the 1960s, the AFL-CIO devoted some of its budget and a good chunk of its political capital to help push the Civil Rights bill, the Voting Rights Act, and Medicare and Medicaid through Congress. Once hostile to undocumented immigrants, unions now try to organize them whenever possible and lobby for a path to legalization.
Motivating all these stands is the belief that valuing democracy requires extending it from polling booths to factories, offices, supermarkets, schoolhouses, and neighborhoods. Of course, some union leaders have been egregious hypocrites in this regard; CIO head John L. Lewis did much to bring “industrial democracy” to auto plants and steel mill, but, in his own Mine Workers union, he tolerated no challenge to his dictatorial control. Yet most unions, then and now, routinely go about practicing something unique in American life: They give millions of workers a voice and a measure of control in the place where they spend a majority of their waking hours and which is, for many, the most significant facet of their identity and self-worth.
In Out of This Furnace, an autobiographical novel, published in 1941, by the Slovak-American writer Thomas Bell, there appears a description of the men who came to organize steel-workers in the company town of Braddock, Pennsylvania:
They were outspoken, fearlessly so, as though they had never learned to glance around and see who might be listening before they spoke…They assumed that there was one law for the rich and one for the poor, and that it was the same law; and they talked about newspapers and radio chains and law courts and legislative bodies as though these things could be used for the benefit of ordinary people as well as against them…For lack of a handier label, [we] thought of them simply as good C.I.O. men.
Seventy years later, in a society where employers and pro-corporate politicians increasingly get their way, labor men and women have to learn how to revive that spirit—in practice as well as rhetoric. Although their fellow Americans may not realize it, they will miss the unions if they vanish.
Michael Kazin’s latest book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent.