The Modern Union versus Workers’ Rights

Wagner and Grassroots Federations

Dolgoff outlined the impact of the Wagner Act on grassroots labor federations such as the UMWA. The National Federation of Mine Laborers had been the parent union of the UMWA, and by its constitution, “the Federation consisted of Lodges (Locals) and districts which vigilantly defended their independence from the domination of the National Office. Their insistence on autonomy and unity through federation (free agreement) was in keeping with the finest libertarian traditions of the American Labor Movement. . . . When Lewis became President in 1919 he did away with the federalist structure of the union, rooted out autonomy and self-determination of locals, centralized and took complete control of the union.” The Wagner Act completed the centralization.

Thus both Carson and Dolgoff argue convincingly that the modern union was an arrangement of shared advantage between big labor, big business, and big government. The relationship between business and unions was not necessarily cordial but it was often convenient.

Among those disadvantaged by the arrangement were smaller employers, the self-employed or non-unionized workers, and the broader grassroots labor movement itself.

Nineteenth-century America was the heyday of the grassroots labor movement. Fueled by a massive influx of immigrant workers and the rapid development of industry, a system of vigorous and varied labor organizations arose to address the specific needs of working people, which went far beyond a decent wage: Labor organizations often functioned as social and cultural support systems as well.

The most prominent nineteenth-century labor federation was the Knights of Labor. Established in 1869, membership reached 28,000 in 1880 and peaked at nearly 700,000 members in 1886. The primary demand of the Knights was an eight-hour day, but it also campaigned on such issues as ending convict and child labor. The Knights emphasized projects designed to empower its membership both economically and socially and to provide security for families. Through local chapters the Knights established worker-owned producer cooperatives; it launched public education campaigns to raise awareness of and sympathy for labor issues; and it organized social support networks to insure against the injury or ill health of members. Indeed many organizations or unions began as “benevolent associations” intended to care for the families of deceased or incapacitated members.

In “Revolutionary Tendencies in American Labor—Part 1,” Dolgoff explained that the labor movement “created a network of corporative institutions of all kinds: schools, summer camps for children and adults, homes for the aged, health and cultural centers, insurance plans, technical education, housing, credit associations, et cetera. All these and many other essential services were provided by the people themselves, long before the government monopolized social services wasting untold billions on a top-heavy bureaucratic parasitical apparatus; long before the labor movement was corrupted by ‘business’ unionism.”

Although the Knights of Labor used pressure tactics such as boycotts and the endorsement of friendly politicians, they did not generally emphasize strikes. Terence V. Powderly, who presided over the Knights during its ascendancy (1879–1893), openly opposed strikes, which he believed caused violence and increased conflict; he favored peaceful negotiation instead. Some local leaders within the Knights disagreed and flexed their autonomy by pursuing local strikes. Indeed, the internal conflict over strikes contributed to the Knights’ decline.

Labor organizations within the nineteenth-century libertarian movement adopted much the same approach as Powderly—namely the use of mutual support, persuasion, and education as tools of labor reform. Perhaps the most prominent of these organizations was the New England Labor Reform League (NELRL), established in Boston in 1869. Its membership boasted individualists Josiah Warren, William B. Greene, and Benjamin Tucker. Ezra Heywood’s The Word served as the NELRL’s publication. The foundational “Declaration of Sentiments” declared the League’s goals to be “Free contracts, free money, free markets, free transit, and free land—by discussion, petition, remonstrance, and the ballot, to establish these articles of faith as a common need, and a common right, we avail ourselves of the advantages of associate effort.”

One example of NELRL activity illustrates the broad manner in which the League defined labor activity. Along with his wife Angela, Heywood founded the Co-Operative Publishing Company from which pamphlets issued, including ones on birth control. The NELRL believed that women workers were victims of the poverty created by unplanned children; thus, birth control fell within the realm of labor reform. “Lady Agents” were sent out to tour the factories and other working-class haunts of New England. Once they had found an audience, the Lady Agents spoke on subjects that merged labor reform with family planning, all the while offering the Co-Operative pamphlets for sale.

With effective networks and diverse strategies, a broad grassroots labor movement grew in power; its threat to entrenched interests also grew. The threat came into glaring focus in 1877 and 1894 with two strikes that involved violence on both sides. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 began in West Virginia over a cut in wages; lasting 45 days, it was finally put down by federal troops who went from city to city to quash sympathy strikes by industrial workers. The Pullman Strike of 1894 began in Pullman, Illinois, again over a cut in wages. Spreading nationwide, it also attracted wildcat sympathy strikes and ultimately involved about 250,000 workers in 27 states. Eventually President Grover Cleveland sent U.S. marshals and some 12,000 troops to break the strikes.

By the turn of the twentieth century the labor movement—notably, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies)—had also become a political threat to the status quo. Organized in 1905, the Wobblies had strong leaders but emphasized rank-and-file organization. Unlike the Knights of Labor, however, the IWW enthusiastically embraced strikes; indeed, it initially opposed the signing of all labor contracts specifically because they blunted the power to strike.

With a large immigrant membership and explicitly socialist principles, the IWW became a potent voice against America’s entry into World War I, which it viewed as a conflict in which the workers of one nation were fighting the workers of another for the profit of capitalists. Thus the IWW became a prime target of the Department of Justice. In September 1917, 48 IWW meeting halls were raided and 165 leaders were arrested under the new Espionage Act. The next year 101 of them went on trial. All were convicted and received prison sentences of up to 20 years. Government repression effectively destroyed the IWW.

Government and big business had learned a lesson: An uncontrolled labor movement was unpredictable, politically dangerous, and bad for commerce. This was particularly true in the early 1930s, when Roosevelt swept into power in the wake of the Great Depression.

In 1929 the stock market collapsed and people panicked, causing runs on banks and massive bank failures. Unemployment rose as high as 25 percent while the personal income of those still employed declined. Large cities were hard hit, especially those dependent on heavy industries. Rural areas were devastated as crop prices tumbled and a severe drought turned farmland into dust. Hundreds of thousands of people were driven from their homes in search of any work whatsoever. Still other people left because of bank foreclosures.

A massive and migrant army of unemployed is a formula for labor revolt. Thus Roosevelt offered a New Deal to American workers; it was a series of interlocking economic programs implemented between 1933 and 1936. Through them the federal government’s regulation of all aspects of commerce increased dramatically; its purpose was to create stability, especially in the area of labor.

This is the context into which the modern union, or big labor, was born—a governmental response to labor upheaval and a big-wendy mcelroybusiness desire for regulatory stability. The business elite may not have liked every aspect of New Deal labor policies, but it had long favored Roosevelt’s general approach to labor relations.

The clout of a voluntary union comes from the individual members who assign their rights of contract over to a representative of the collective. In modern unions the opposite happens. Some members may join freely but they cannot later negotiate for themselves if they disagree with the union. Other members may be required to join as a condition of working in a specific industry or at a unionized company. Thus the modern union is the opposite of a grassroots organization; it strips individual workers of the rights of free non-association and of contract. The modern union—whether of the public or private sector—is the antithesis of workers’ rights.

Wendy McElroy

Photos by Robin Doyno.

Published by the LA Progressive on June 28, 2011
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