Requiem for the American Worker

steelworkersSince the November elections attacks on public employees and their unions have exploded. Everywhere you turn you read of attacks on public sector workers, from teachers to janitors, firefighters to administrators. Wealthy right-wing corporations and their political pawns and media enablers have tried to make public employees into public enemies.

Even in union-dense states like California, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, and Ohio, public employees and their unions are suddenly in the crosshairs of right-wingers hell-bent on starving state budgets along with public employees and their unions. Attacks on public employees and their unions are nothing new. For decades public employees have been scapegoats for right-wing government haters who have accused them of doing nothing while falsely claiming that they make considerably more money than their private sector counterparts.

To fully appreciate the significance of the present attack on public employee unions it must be considered in the context of the four-decade war being waged by corporate America against the American labor movement. Over the past forty-plus years corporations and their political pawns have systematically attacked unions in each economic sector having significant density as well as political and economic power. In the late 1960s large corporations, working in concert, decided the time was right to wage a serious, well-organized and well-financed war on the American labor movement. The era of cooperation, conciliation and collective bargaining of the 1940s, 1950s and part of the 1960s was tossed on the proverbial ash heap of history.

We can look back and see the carnage that the corporate war on workers and their unions has wrought: a decline in wages, benefits, unions and jobs–while corporations and the wealthiest one-percent have amassed the largest concentrations of wealth in history.

steelworkers
Steelworkers Local 7-669 has been locked out since last summer at a nuclear fuels plant near Metropolis, Illinois, across the Ohio River from Paducah, Kentucky. Many Kentucky union members participated in a rally to support them. (Photos: Berry Craig)

It may come as a surprise to many that the current assault on public employee unions has its roots in the late 1960s when a deliberate, well-organized and financed effort by 200 of America’s largest corporations to destroy the building trades unions got underway. With the organization of the Construction Users’ Anti-Inflation Roundtable, chaired by U.S. Steel’s Roger Blough, the largest U.S. industrial corporations dependent upon the skilled union trades organized around the desire to have their projects built and maintained without having to pay union wages and benefits. The “Roundtable” commissioned a series of studies designed to provide cover for their efforts to undermine the building trades unions and began giving unwarranted competitive advantages to nonunion contractors.

This original “Roundtable” later merged with another corporate-backed anti-labor organization known as the Labor Law Study Committee to form the Business Roundtable. Of the many schemes hatched by the Business Roundtable was the conspiracy to award billions of dollars of industrial construction work to the largest nonunion contractors in the nation. To make this a reality they helped establish the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) as the counterpoint to the well organized labor/management committees among the union sector of the construction industry. The ABC became the mechanism for challenging the supremacy of union construction in every market in the nation and one of the most vehemently anti-union organizations in the nation.

In May 1979, J.C. Turner, President of the International Union of Operating Engineers, made the following observations:

“It has become apparent that a systematic and well planned campaign is being conducted to totally destroy the building trades… the current attack is the result of a decade of planning and groundwork by the Business Roundtable acting in concert with regional and local construction user associations, the contractor associations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, pro-business academic institutions and their allies in government… Our real enemy is clearly these large industrial concerns, organized as the Business Roundtable, who are using the contractors and their associations as soldiers in the battle. Their purpose is to put the lid on costs by pressuring their construction contractors to slash wages… The Business Roundtable represents a threat not just to the building trades unions but to the trade union movement as a whole… If corporate America can weaken the hard-won gains of this country’s construction unions, the ultimate target will be the entire trade union movement…”

Double-breasting, where union contractors establish so-called alter ego nonunion firms to compete with and undermine their own union companies became rampant. The federal government purposefully failed to enforce federal prevailing wage and workplace safety laws. Legal restrictions, such as repeal of common situs picketing further restricted building trades’ efforts to maintain or expand market share and membership.

While the corporate assault on the building trades unions was in full swing, it gained a powerful ally when Ronald Reagan became President on January 20, 1981. Following his election Reagan wasted no time and quickly met with the president of the ABC and signaled his strong support for the war on the building trades unions.

Reagan’s alliance with the Business Roundtable and the ABC was certainly not his only contribution to union busting. On August 5, 1981, in the single most infamous act of anti-unionism in memory Reagan fired striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO).

steelworkersPATCO was a good target for Reagan since PATCO was a “professional” organization and was not affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Lacking critical relationships necessary for support and solidarity in times of crisis it was unlikely that the rest of the labor movement would rise up and defend this small, professional, independent organization that may have made a grave tactical error by calling a prohibited work stoppage. PATCO had endorsed and supported Reagan in his campaign for president, adding to its outsider identity and alienation from the rest of the labor movement.

It is universally agreed that by firing and decertifying PATCO, Reagan signaled to employers that his administration would be complicit in the corporate war on workers and their unions. Reagan’s actions were just the opposite of what FDR had accomplished for unions when he declared, “If I went to work in a factory the first thing I’d do is join a union.” FDR, through his words, deeds and legislation did more to spur the growth of unions in America than any single political leader in history. Reagan’s actions accomplished just the opposite and began an era of union busting in which high paid consultants used every legal and illegal trick in the books, with the assistance and cooperation of the Reagan NLRB and DOL, to harass unions and thwart organizing at every turn.

Reagan’s action ushered in an era in which the use of permanent striker replacements became the norm, effectively nullifying labor’s most powerful weapon – the strike. In disputes where workers engaged in work stoppages to pressure employers into negotiating reasonable terms and conditions, employers emboldened and encouraged by Reagan’s treatment of PATCO, simply hired permanent striker replacements and eliminated the persuasive impact of work stoppages as a means of pressuring employers to bargain in good faith.

The extent to which the use of permanent replacements became the favored method to undermine the effect of strikes is borne out by the fact that strikes have become virtually non-existent and are no longer considered a very useful weapon. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2009 (the latest year available) the number of work stoppages reached it lowest level since 1947, when they first began collecting data on work stoppages.

With the building trades unions on the defensive, PATCO busted and the use of permanent striker replacements widespread, the next major assault on organized labor focused on industrial unions like the United Auto Workers, United Steel Workers, Machinists, IUE, etc. It came in the form of so-called free trade agreements like NAFTA and provided employers with another mechanism to undermine unions by placing American workers directly in competition with much lower paid workers in other countries. With unionized workers in industries like auto, steel and aerospace making the highest wages and benefits they became primary targets of employers wanting to lower labor costs and the most vulnerable to foreign outsourcing.

Under not-so-free-trade agreements corporations can simply close down factories and move them to Mexico, India, China or wherever. Corporations pay little or no tariffs on the products they export back to the U.S. On top of that they can get tax breaks for moving good-paying union jobs to foreign countries. What a great deal! Also, foreign corporations that agree to operate non-union factories in America, like large auto assembly plants, receive huge tax breaks, incentives and other competitive advantages over the unionized domestic producers and you get the same result–workers pitted against each other between unionized and non-union employers.

Not-so-free-trade-agreements, which facilitate the movement of factories to foreign countries, are an extension of the old “runaway shop” used by corporations for more than a century to run away from union shops in the heavy unionized industrial northeast and Midwest. Prior to the not-so-free-trade agreement era corporations ran away to southern states where adherence to Jim Crow, right-to-work-for-less and other traditions kept unions from expanding and gaining political and economic power.

Bill Londrigan (Photo: Berry Craig)

Not-so-free-trade can be thought of as the runaway shop on steroids and has become an effective and widespread tool for getting rid of American unions and cowing those that remain. Corporations don’t really have to get their hands dirty either. They really don’t have to hire high priced union busting attorneys. They really don’t have to deal with the NLRB or DOL. All they have to do is close the plant and move it to a foreign country where unions are weak, compliant or nonexistent and cooperative governments keep workers in line and union power to a minimum. Not-so-free-trade agreements have wiped out millions of good-paying American manufacturing jobs–a disproportionate number of these union jobs.

Now it is the public sector unions that are in the crosshairs of anti-union politicians and their corporate bosses. Given the history of anti-unionism in America over the past forty years it should come as no surprise they are now the target of large scale coordinated union busting. Just as the building trades and industrial unions have been targeted for destruction, public employees are now facing a gauntlet of anti-unionism aimed squarely at them. With more public sector employees belonging to unions than those in the private sector (7.9 million v. 7.4 million) and union membership rates for public sector workers substantially higher than the rate for private industry workers (37.4% v. 7.2%) it should come as no surprise that public sector unions are now the primary targets in the corporate war on workers and their unions.

The preceding condensed version of the last forty years of the corporate war on America’s workers and their unions brings to mind one of the most moving and incisive quotations over the consequences of being divided against a common enemy. It is from Pastor Martin Niemoller (1892-1984) referring to the rise of Nazi power in Germany and the complicity of those who failed to act to prevent the spread of the Nazi plague:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me –
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Using Pastor Niemoller’s words as a template and with profound respect, I would submit the following requiem for American workers for their complicity in or ignorance of the corporate war on America’s workers and their unions:

Requiem for The American Worker

First they attacked the building trades unions,
and I did not speak out –
because I was not a member of the building trades;

Then they fired the air traffic controllers,
and I did not speak out –
because I was not an air traffic controller;

Then they shipped millions of union manufacturing jobs overseas,
and I did not speak out –
because I did not work in a union shop;

Then they vilified and attacked public sector unions,
and I did not speak out –
because I was not a member of a public employee union;

Then I needed a union –
and there were none left to speak out for me.

Bill Londrigan, President
Kentucky State AFL-CIO

Published by the LA Progressive on January 24, 2011
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About Bill Londrigan

Bill Londrigan has been president of the Kentucky AFL-CIO since 1999.