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Union Labor Reflections on Labor Day

It was 180 years ago, on August 21, 1831, that unpaid laborer Nat Turner led a group of about 70 other unpaid laborers on a protest against their status. They killed about 60 people, mostly plantation owners. But they passed by and did not injure impoverished farmers in their path, on the stated grounds that those farmers suffered much the same plight as Nat Turner’s group. 

Because group punishment was in 1831, as it remains today, standard procedure for corporate response to labor protests, hundreds of unpaid laborers were killed as group punishment for Nat Turner’s rebellion. 

Nat Turner was an educated man. He could read and write and was a biblical scholar, who regularly preached to groups of unpaid laborers. As group punishment for his rebellion, states across the south passed laws prohibiting the education of Nat Turner’s sort of unpaid laborers, and made it illegal for other preachers like Nat Turner to preach to unpaid laborers without plantation supervision. 

One hundred years later, rag tag groups of laborers in auto factories staged sit-in strikes, confronting U.S. soldiers wielding machine guns and small arms. The government sided with the auto makers and threatened the laborers’ lives for the acts of demanding better pay and working conditions. Unlike Nat Turner’s effort, this labor rebellion led to capitulation by the government and the auto makers. The Laborers were rewarded with higher pay, union recognition, and better lives for their families. 

Laborers had been organizing in mines and factories for decades. Their lives always at risk from both government and private armies, sent to attack not just workers but their families, their children. While laborers were organizing, other men were putting their own lives at risk by using the legal system to advance the rights of laborers and their families. 

Black Labor Asserts Rights

The NAACP started asserting the legal rights of black laborers even as the Jim Crow system spread north out of the southern states where it had been born. And as the legal claims began to be made, the violent reactions grew. But despite the lynchings, shootings, beatings and other efforts, the legal claims started to yield results. 

Corporate America encouraged the racism of unions, pitting laborers with similar interests against each other, as they had done since the mid-17th century with agricultural laborers.

Part of this was a result of WWI. Black laborers were not given a choice about being shipped overseas to fight for corporate privilege. When they returned, having spent years in a military which focused more on competence than color, and having spent years in Europe, seeing that societies needn’t be so rigidly defined along racial lines, Black soldiers were compelled to return to oppression, random violence, unfair share-cropping lives and the legal denial of civil rights or basic education. Some of them rebelled. Some sought legal redress. 

The same process happened after WWII. Black soldiers returning from the war against Hitler’s Germany were killed for the “sin” of wearing the uniforms in public that the government had required them to wear on the job. But after WWII, Black laborers had the benefit of several legal decisions won by the NAACP and other organizations, holding that civil rights were theirs. Having put their lives on the line for European freedom, increasing numbers of Black laborers were willing to put their lives on the line for freedoms at home. 

But as factory and other laborers gained freedoms and privileges, they continued to live with societal “norms.” Too many unions excluded Black workers and women workers. Corporate America encouraged the racism of unions, pitting laborers with similar interests against each other, as they had done since the mid-17th century with agricultural laborers. And the laborers, raised on racist and sexist tropes, let themselves be set against each other, thus distracted from the need to press for better conditions and pay for all workers. 

Corporate Influence on Unions

The corporate influence on unions was felt in other, destructive ways. Union organizers spent decades educating workers, laying plans that came to fruition only after years of work. But once unions began to be recognized as laborers’ representatives, corporations dealing with unions worked mightily to get unions to fit into corporate-think - focus on next quarter’s profits, next contract’s pay increases. And abandon the long term thinking that made unions so powerful in their youth. 

The unionized industrial explosion after WWII put second cars in every laborer’s driveway, swimming pools, vacations along the new and expanding interstate highway system. Taking their cue from corporate management, unions learned that self-promotion was both cheaper and easier to control than worker education. What passed for long term planning was getting workers into retirement funds. And who better to manage those funds than the very corporate leaders who had made the corporations successful. 

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So it was that unions were joined at the hip with corporate leadership when the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement started getting legal rulings that they had to be included in industrial America. While technology and more global communications were leading more and more Americans to buy the new, smaller, more reliable, cheaper to buy and maintain cars coming from Europe and Japan, the auto workers’ union joined corporate management in deriding the new vehicles and proclaiming that American buyers wouldn’t want them. 

And as Rachel Carson and others began to enlighten the world about environmental issues, industrial unions supported corporations and their pollution which let Ohio’s Cuyahoga River burst into flames at least 13 times between the end of WWII and 1969. Forward-looking, education, and environmental concerns were all antithetical to the unions’ desire to get the most pay for workers right now, with no looking to the future. 

The corporate-think unions had been suckered into reached its nadir in the 1980s. With the new generation of corporate raider management types, conglomeration and offshoring became the norms. Bean counter corporate raiders like Neutron Jack Welch proved that bankruptcy could be a profit center. And with corporate bankruptcies, the pension plans into which workers had entrusted their retirement savings, were looted to line the pockets of corporate creditors, managers and attorneys, leaving union pensioners high and dry.

The Reagan Revolution started a period of turmoil within unions. In keeping with the “me, me, me” tenor of the times, unions found it preferable to fight with each other than for each other. Power struggles and divisions further weakened the union movement. But individual unions, notably the Service Workers’ Union and the Teachers’ Unions, emerged working for workers rather than for union management (although the teachers’ unions sometimes seem to discount the needs of students, compared with perennially underpaid, under-resourced teachers). 

Now, forty years after the Reagan Revolution, the AFL-CIO is headed by a woman (Liz Shuler). Progress from the time a woman couldn’t even get into the union. Ms. Shuler’s work with the union has included efforts at outreach to younger people, and the use of modern communications technology. As a woman, she must bring to the job experience and sensitivity to the realities of workplace discrimination and pay disparities. She may represent an opportunity to renew unions looking forward to the long term as well as addressing pressing current needs. 

Union Representation Means Better Pay

Unions have always represented better pay and working conditions for American families, despite short-sightedness and troubling corruption. As our economy continues to shift assets and opportunities to the owning class and away from the working class, this can be a time of opportunity for unions willing to reach out with offerings of better choices for workers. 

Education will be a necessary component of making unions more relevant, again, to the working population. At a time of national pandemic and still limited national health care, unions representing workers at big drug companies are supporting the corporate welfare of government guaranteed profits and artificially high drug prices. 

But such narrow self interest doesn’t vitiate the value of the union movement overall. Occasional corruption and narrow-sighted, short term focus is the norm in business management, so it should expected, not tolerated, but expected in union management as well. 

Just as cell ‘phone videos have stripped away the protection of lying in police reports, modern technology can help reveal and correct mismanagement and loss of vision in unions. Technology, especially the development of the printing press, broke the monopoly of the Church’s priests “union,” and opened up freedoms that most people had never before imagined. 

The spread of literacy and the spread of telegraph, telephone and radio all contributed to the ability of laborers to communicate with each other, to organize and build the union movement of the middle 20th century. The explosion of cell ‘phone and social media technologies should make union organizing easier, as well as responding to corporate attacks. 

But technology goes only so far. Like voting, union organizing and functioning requires people committed to using the technology. Mail in voting can be safe, efficient, and convenient. But if people don’t fill in and return their ballots, it doesn’t matter how safe and convenient they are.

Tom Hall

Workers have to be convinced that union membership is valuable and beneficial. For at least half a century, unions haven’t promoted that truth very well, particularly to non-members. Perhaps desperation in some workers, as more and more of their money is taken by the super rich, will motivate some to look into union protections. But unions should be working pro-actively to educate both their own members and their not-yet members. Unions should be out blowing their own horns - but in tunes that prospective members can relate and respond to. 

Tom Hall