Labor Pioneers Helped Create Modern America
So it’s Labor Day – one of those quaint, old fashioned holidays that once meant something to people but is now just another excuse for a barbecue or a ballgame.
Thus will it ever be so; America changes and we slough off the old and embrace (or at least tolerate) the new. But Labor Day should be a time to call to mind the triumphs and tragedies that built the labor movement and through the efforts of a precious few courageous men and women, forged the modern America that we live in today.
The modern concept of “work” was largely created by organized labor. The story of how that came about is a fascinating one that has everything a good drama should have; heroes, villains, damsels in distress, and ultimate tragedy as unions first corrupted themselves, then were taken over in many cases by organized crime, and now have atrophied to become caricatures of themselves.
Go back 125 years and you will find that “work” meant something entirely different than it does today. Work was getting up at the crack of dawn and going to a factory where it was a crap shoot as to whether you’d leave at dusk that day with all your fingers, toes, hands, arms, legs, feet, and eyes – not to mention coming home at all. Safety regimens, workers’ compensation, and work rules that put safety first were all invented by industrial unions.
Too smart to work at a factory? How about working as an accountant at the turn of the 20th century. You would likely work 10-12 hours a day in poor light, 6 days a week, with no paid sick leave or paid vacation, and arbitrariness in hiring and firing. It wasn’t until unions came along and literally fought for these benefits, that these things we take for granted today in all industries became common in the workplace.
The very concept of “leisure time” came about because unions and workers fought bloody battles with hired company goons (and, in some cases, local police) for a 5 day, 40 hour workweek. They fought for a living wage. Their agitation created a large middle class that had the purchasing power to change the face of American retail businesses. The consumer society was born because unions fought for the ability of their members to buy more than the necessities of life. Living a middle class life came to mean the ability to buy “luxury” goods like cars, washing machines, refrigerators (“ice boxes”), and other products that were made by other unionized workers.
Far from declining, profits of industrial companies soared. While there may have been grumbling from management, the labor unrest that occurred prior to unions taking on the task of negotiating contracts largely receded. It seems strange, but unions back then recognized that they were stakeholders in assuring that a company remained profitable and competitive. American unions, unlike their European counterparts, participated in the capitalist system and eschewed Communism and socialism – although there were always agitators who tried to alter that equation.
So what happened? Unions became victims of their own success. The depression radicalized some. Organized crime recognized the potentially huge opportunity to skim cash from welfare and pension funds. But beyond that, small minded men replaced the original giants in organized labor and saw to it that the union feathered their nest, rather than working for its members.
By the early 1970’s at the height of their power, unions had been sowing the seeds of their own destruction for decades. The business landscape was altered by history and government; history, because both the victorious and defeated powers who fought World War II had finally rebuilt their industrial capacity and were challenging America for supremacy. And government, because the necessary by products of industrial production – pollution, toxic waste, poisoning ground water — needed to be reined in or we would have killed ourselves.
Rather than recognize the changed environment, unions acted as if the party would go on forever. Alas, it was not to be. Industry by industry went bankrupt or were forced to cut back precipitously. Fewer workers, less power; the snowball was rolling downhill until today, fewer than 12% of the workforce is unionized, down from a high of 35% in post war America.
Have we gained more than we lost in this exchange? I think it depends on the industry. Some industries have probably been helped by a loss of union membership while others could use more union representation. There is also the matter of specific unions and how they are run. The Teamsters have been purged of mobsters for the most part and is a reasonably well run outfit. The leadership of the UAW, on the other hand, could use some radical reformation given the goodies they take for themselves at the expense of their members.
Questions about whether unions are necessary are usually asked by those who don’t work in a job like the home health care field where workers are paid barely minimum wage and whose hours are brutal. Other service workers might do better if they organized. The question isn’t whether unions are necessary, but rather where they would improve the workforce and increase profits. Unions and profits are not incompatible as long as both sides recognize their common interests. That’s a tall order for some unions and most management today. But it is not inconceivable going forward.
There is thuggishness. There is featherbedding. There is corruption and criminal activity. There is all that and worse in the modern organized labor movement. But whatever you think about unions today should not obscure the real benefits and achievements of unions in the past. Along with some visionary companies, they had a great deal to do with inventing the America we live in today.
So honor that effort. And recognize that there is dignity and worth in every worker who participates in our capitalist economy.