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.
The 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.