Countering the Republican Anti-Labor Campaign

la workers marchCountering the Republican Anti-Labor Campaign: A Strategic Flanking Maneuver

When we focus on the current Republican assault on organized labor in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. The Republican Party, the party of big business, has opposed labor unions from the very beginning of the labor movement, seeking whenever possible to use the law and the courts to destroy it. After the high tide of organized labor during the New Deal (when the Roosevelt administration actively supported and collaborated with organized labor) subsequent decades have seen a sustained Republican counteroffensive.

The first major blow was the Taft-Hartley Act, enacted over President Truman’s veto in 1947. The act significantly weakened pro-labor provisions of the New Deal’s National Labor Relations Act, restricting the right to strike and requiring union leaders to sign a loyalty oath, a provision directed against the more radical leaders of such unions as the Longshoremen. Closed shops (requiring the employer to hire only union members) were expressly prohibited. Subsequent attempts to repeal or amend this law have failed.

At the end of World War II, about one-third of the work force was in unions; that number has steadily declined over subsequent decades, in response to broad trends in the national and international economies, as well as changes in law like Taft-Hartley, and court decisions. At present, union membership is probably below ten percent of the work force.

An early blow to unionization occurred in the 1950s and 1960s when many manufacturing companies moved plants from the Midwest and Northeast to the much less union-friendly South, often shedding union contracts as they closed plants. This process has continued as manufacturing has increasingly moved abroad, always in pursuit of lower wages and weaker regulation. National policy has actively abetted this process by freeing corporations from any obligations to their work forces or host communities.

Nationally, Democrats have been lukewarm at best in their defense of labor unions, but Republicans have been, and are increasingly, solidly opposed to unions. Unions have returned the favor by supporting the Democrats overwhelmingly. The only major exception was the Teamsters in the Jimmy Hoffa era, when Bobby Kennedy’s anti-corruption crusade against them drove them into Nixon’s arms.

Organized labor did make a significant breakthrough in the 1960s and 1970s when unions succeeded in organizing public school teachers and other local, state and federal employees. This was a major shot in the arm for the movement as it lost manufacturing jobs. But the issue of the right to strike for public employees was highly contentious. Ronald Reagan’s confrontation with the Air Traffic Controllers’ union, when he dismissed and replaced all striking controllers, laid down a hard line that has rarely been crossed in subsequent years. Teachers, however, have retained an effectively right to strike that is used somewhere in the country every year. Public employees are now the most important sector of the labor movement, and that is the reason that several Republican governors have decided on a frontal assault.

A much weakened labor movement is thus backed against the wall, fighting to save one of its last redoubts. But even if the movement wins these current battles, it will still be in a fundamentally weak position. It must defend the right to form and belong to unions as a way of improving working conditions, but it does so in an increasingly hostile legal and political environment.

What else can labor do, not only to hold the line, but to regain the offensive? I suggest that the movement needs to transcend the model of labor solidarity in the workplace and find ways of reaching the vast majority of wage and salary workers who are not now in unions. Many of them are in situations like Wal-Mart, where a union is not currently allowed. Others may see how they are being exploited, but may not see how a workplace union will help them.

While continuing its core mission of organizing the workplace, the movement could learn a great deal from the AARP. That organization defines itself as an advocate for people over 50. People are offered membership when they reach that age, at a very low cost. The AARP keeps its dues low by means of profitable insurance plans that members and others may enroll in. The political clout of the AARP probably exceeds that of organized labor, and its membership is undoubtedly greater.

Tjohn peelerhe point is that the AFL-CIO could become a conventional membership organization, appealing to workers anywhere in the economy, whether unionized or not. Like the AARP, keep the dues low to bring them in the door. This would provide an excellent opportunity to educate non-unionized workers, who are currently at the mercy of Fox News. Far more people feel abused and exploited in today’s economy than are members of labor unions. This initiative would enable the movement to reach those people and begin to weld them into a working majority for fundamental economic, social and political change.

John Peeler

Author Spotlight: John Peeler


  1. says

    Well unfortunately I’d have to disagree that I’m a slave to corporations….. Working is not necessarily a right, it is a privilege. I guess the same idea has much to do about driving and the roads these days, but people seem to forget that as well. As a corporate employee I get health benefits and I can purchase company stock. Yes, the CEO actually does work for the stockholders in all forms of free-market systems.

  2. says

    Speaking on the subject of union-busting, and corporate strategies, there was a period of time when the local Spanish-language radio stations were broadcasting an onslaught of ads that lured many Latinos out to the Mid-West. This was quite a while back, but the ads promised much more than minimum wage (at that time) and the benefits of living in smaller towns. These people pulled local wages down for the locals, unknowingly, of course…They ended up working in poultry, hog and beef slaughter and processing, for the most part. Taking this as a lesson, I believe that unions have to approach this sector of labor to a) prevent the loss of benefits gained by unionization b) gather in the workers from unrepresented sectors rather than allowing them to be made into enemies…

  3. Milan Moravec says

    Loyalty in business and the public sector drains your employability in the market place.. Are you loyal and not employable? How do you make yoursef employable in the market place. As businesses, universities, states, counties, cities worldwide stumble through the recession some find themselves in a phase of creative disassembly. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are shed. World class University of California Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau ($500,000 salary) and his $3 million outside consultants is firing employees via his “Operational Excellence (OE)”: 2,000 axed by end 2011. Yet many cling to an old assumption: the implied, unwritten management-employee contract.

    Management promised work, upward progress for employees fitting in, employees accepted lower wages, performing in prescribed ways, sticking around. Longevity was good employer-employee relations; turnover a dysfunction. None of these assumptions apply in the 21 century economy. Businesses, universities, public institutions can no longer guarantee careers, even if they want to. Managements paralyzed themselves with a strategy of “success brings successes” rather than “successes brings failure’ and are now forced to break implied contract with employees – a contract nurtured by management that future can be controlled.

    Jettisoned employees are discovering that hard won knowledge earned while loyal is no longer desired in employment markets. What contract can employers, employees make with each other?

    The central idea is simple, powerful: job is a shared partnership.
    • Employers, employees face financial conditions together; longevity of partnership depends on how well customers, constituencies needs are met.
    • Neither management nor employee has future obligation to the other.
    • Organizations train people.
    • Employees create security they really need – skills, knowledge that creates employability in 21st century economies
    • The management-employee loyalty partnership can be dissolved without either party considering the other a traitor.

    Sustaine management and employee employability in the market place.

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