Summary: Americans consider a prosperous middle class to be our just due. We forgot how generations of union activists helped create it. The middle class existed for only a few generations, and survived the crushing of unions by only a few decades. On this Labor Day let’s remember the lost history of the union movement, learn from it – and do better in the future.
The rise and fall of unions.
In the mid-1970s Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) was a key part of the labor movement. Its graduates were the vanguard of the labor movement – trained to continue the progress of the previous 110 years. The progress that had played a large role in building America’s large middle class. The ILR students I knew were idealistic, hard-working, and confident they were on the winning side (it was the 1970s).
The ILR students were trained in the social and political sciences, and in business. They did not know they should have been studying strategy and tactics from the West Point curriculum. Corporate leaders had decided to roll back the New Deal, and breaking unions was a key part of that. War, of a sorts, had been declared – an undeclared war, lavishly financed by patient capital, and one executed by people as talented as those from Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
Forty years later the union movement is broken, with the last bastions – such as government employees – now under attack. It was one of the first institutions to fall in the ongoing collapse of America’s institutions (see A new, dark picture of America’s future).
The rise of America’s middle class
“To remember the loneliness, the fear and the insecurity of men who once had to walk alone in huge factories, beside huge machines. To realize that labor unions have meant new dignity and pride to millions of our countrymen. To be able to see what larger pay checks mean, not to a man as an employee, but as a husband and as a father. To know these things is to understand what American labor means.”
— Adlai Stevenson’s speech to the American Federation of Labor in NYC on 22 Sept. 1952.
The middle class was not a gift to us from the Blue Fairy. Instead of “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”, workers mobilized against their employers. It took generations after the Civil War to build America’s middle class, and unions were a large factor making it happen. They provided organization, political muscle, money for research, and trained people to counter the massive institutional power of corporations.
It was a long bloody struggle, For a blow-by-blow of unions’ rise see this series by Erik Loomis (Assoc. Prof of History, U RI). The toll paid by union members – in time, work, and often blood – is as much a cost of building America as that paid by the members of our armed forces. Here are some of the battles in this long struggle.
- September 1739: The Stono Rebellion.
- July 1835: Paterson Textile Strike of 1835.
- February 1865: Sons of Vulcan win nation’s first union contract.
- August 1866: National Labor Union demands Congress requrie the 8-hour day.
- June 1877: Molly Maguires executed in Pennsylvania.
- July 1877: The Great Railroad Strike.
- Feb. 1864: Kate Mullaney & Collar Laundry Union go on strike in Troy, NY.
- September 1885: Rock Springs Massacre.
- May 1886: Haymarket Riot.
- December 1886: Creation of the Colored Farmers Alliance.
- February 1887: Grover Cleveland signs the Dawes Act.
- November 1887: Thibodaux Massacre.
- July 1892: People’s Party Convention.
- July 1892: The Homestead Strike.
- July 1892: Miners outside of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho blow up the Frisco Mill.
- February 1894: Cripple Creek gold miners strike.
- April 1894: Coxey’s Army.
- June 1894: Pullman Strike.
- May 1902: Anthracite coal miners strike in Pennsylvania begins, TR mediates.
- December 1905: Murder of former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg.
- November 1909: Uprising of the 20,000.
- March 1911: Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
- May 1911: Wisconsin passes the first workers compensation law.
- February 1912: Beating of the women and children at Lawrence, MA.
- June 1913: Paterson Silk Pageant. Addendum here.
- August 1913: Wheatland Riot.
- April 1914: Ludlow Massacre.
- November 1915: Joe Hill executed in Utah.
- November 1916: The Everett Massacre.
- July 1917: The Bisbee Deportation.
- August 1917: Frank Little lynched in Butte.
- February 1919: The Seattle General Strike.
- November 1919: The Centralia Massacre.
- May 1920: Matewan Massacre.
- August 1921: Battle of Blair Mountain.
- June 1922: Herrin Massacre.
- June 1925: Soldiers in Nova Scotia shoot & kill William Davis, a striking coal miner.
- August 1925: Founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
- August 1927: Execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.
- March 1932: River Rouge march and repression.
- May 1934: Longshoremen strike begins in San Francisco.
- May 1934: Minneapolis Teamsters Strike.
- November 1935: Creation of the CIO.
- February 1937: The Flint Sit-Down Strike ends.
- May 1937: Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago.
- May 1937: Battle of the Overpass.
- January 1941: March on Washington Movement leads to end of official segregation in defense industry.
- June 1943: Detroit Hate Strike.
- July 1944: Port Chicago explosion.
- August 1945: Start of the first flight attendant union, the Air Line Stewardesses Assn.
- September 1946: Tobacco workers win contract in NC, starting CIO’s Operation Dixie.
- December 1946: The Oakland General Strike.
- April 1952: Truman nationalizes steel industry — Workers wages cannot rise as fast as CEOs’.
- July 1959: Steelworkers Strike of 1959 begins.
- January 1962: President Kennedy issues Executive Order 10988, authorizing collective bargaining for public workers.
- April 1968: Assassination of Martin Luther King during sanitation strike in Memphis.
- January 1970: Murder of UMWA reformer Jock Yablonski.
- July 1970: United Farm Workers force growers into the first union contract in the history of California agricultural labor.
Struggles during the long decline.
In response corporations organized cartels to fight their workers and raise prices for their customers. They bought politicians in bulk. This was part of their plan to roll back the New Deal. It has been very successful
- March 1974: Coalition of Trade Union Women holds first meeting.
- March 1977: AFSCME goes on strike in Atlanta, crushed by mayor Maynard Jackson.
- August 1981: Air Traffic Controllers go on strike in biggest disaster in union history.
- September 1989: The Pittston Strike.
- June 1990: Los Angeles police beat SEIU members in Justice for Janitors march.
Throwing away the gains from 110 years of struggle
Gains from generations of struggle were lost carelessly in a generation. Many unions were internally weaker than they looked at their peak, with widespread corruption, stupid and greedy leaders, and infiltrated by organized crime. This made the successful counter-revolution by corporations much easier.
As a sign of their brazen return to power, mega-corps have re-instituted illegal wage cartels: such as those reveal among technology companies and entertainment companies – plus those we don’t know about (these are easy to hide if done informally). What will America look after another generation of corporate attacks on workers?
The fall of unions was a major factor undermining the middle class.
Since 1970 wages have been falling as a share of Gross Domestic Income (GDI); since 1990 profits are rising. See the graphs below. The reasons are complex, the result has by now become unmistakable: a shift of our national income from return on labor to return on capital. Since the nation’s wealth is so highly concentrated, the result is rising inequality of income.
The actual decline of workers’ pay is worse than shown in this graph, since these “wages” include the vast sums paid to senior corporate managers – sums beyond anything seen until 1980s. Click to enlarge.
Profits as a share of Gross Domestic Income fell for generations, reversing after 1990. Since then every day is Christmas for plutocrats! Click to enlarge.