Unions in America aren’t what they used to be. As membership fell dramatically over the last 60 years, labor leaders went from household names to obscure and often negatively stereotyped small players in the national story. But as Philip Dray reveals in There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America, labor has been an integral part of American history. “It’s an incredible campaign that went on for decades, that involved our grandparents and great-grandparents and achieved so many things we take for granted,” Dray said. Below, Dray chats about the farm girls who kicked off the labor movement, why labor lost its steam last century, and whether the recession will help unions pick up again.
Q. Where does the story of unionization in America begin?
A. I start my book with the industrialization of America, which begins in the 1820s up in New England, with the textile mills. It has an interesting back story. The founders of our country were a little divided about whether or not it was a good idea to have industry here. They thought that the U.S., because it was such a large landmass with strong farming traditions, might not need industry. They didn’t like what they had seen of it in England and Europe. But others thought that because we have all these natural resources, we should have industry.
The owners of these New England textile mills sought to create a paternalistic environment that would protect workers. This was appropriate in their minds particularly because many of these workers were young women, farm girls, many of them in their teens. The system actually worked for about a generation. They called it the Lowell miracle. People actually came to see it – Charles Dickens, Andrew Jackson – to see that you could have industry that was profitable, and you could have workers who were treated well. They had boarding houses with den mothers watching over the girls. They had lectures and reading circles.
But the women began to realize their pay was low, and the conditions were harsh. They worked 12 to 14 hours a day. It was a tough way to make a living. That was where unionization began on a large scale, with these women organizing and striking. Their first demand, which became a broad campaign, was for a 10 hour day.
Q. Why did that paternalistic, protective attitude go away? Was it economic circumstances or a philosophical change?
A. Partly it was economic. Eventually, when their profits weren’t as good as they hoped, the mill owners began to cut some of the niceties they extended. They increased production quotas. They lengthened hours, they tried to cut pay a few times. This is a lesson we know well today – the enlightened attitude of management will only carry you so far. Management can give and management can take away. That’s why unions are wary of benign corporate outreach. They know it’s only temporary.
When the workers rebelled, the owners were shocked. They thought the workers were ingrates. That was a basic misunderstanding between labor and capital that would prove enduring. As would the question of who is producing the profits and how much labor is entitled to. The workers felt they were the ones, aside from the raw materials, who were creating the goods. They felt they should be getting paid better. But capital thought, you’re lucky you have this job at all. We’re putting up all the investment and taking all the risk.
Q. How did unionization spread, and did it require militancy to win the gains it did?
A. The 10-hour movement went regional. Just as America was growing and capital was becoming more expensive, railroads were spreading across the country. By the Civil War, you had national markets – shoes made in Massachusetts were being sold in Chicago, that kind of thing. The unions felt they had to catch up, so they also went national. After the Civil War you saw the arrival of a couple of different national labor federations that sought to address these issues on a national scale. They did become more militant because they realized that along with capital getting more widespread, their American dream – that they would work and save and open their own businesses and be prosperous – began to wane. Workers realized that they were cogs in this large industrial mechanism, these steel mills and mines and railroads. There’s no quick exit. The whole mentality of labor began to shift a bit. Once workers began to realize that they were workers and not individuals, they became more militant. They insisted they needed more safety, more income.
Q. What are some of the gains made then that we take for granted?
A. This is another reason I wrote the book. No one ever gave workers anything – they demanded things. Management was very resistant. Government kept a hands-off attitude for many decades. The only thing the government did was to send troops to put down workers, and later, to use court injunctions to suppress workers. The workers would strike for better work conditions, longer meal times, safety measures, rules about hiring and firing, grievance procedures, a five-day work week, and ultimately the very right to bargain with employers. Collective bargaining has been guaranteed since the New Deal, but for years it was not. Unions had to fight for that right – just to be recognized as the union that represented the workers.
Q. How did labor’s reputation start to wane in the 20th century?
A. It’s hard to generalize. Labor unions got a bit soft after the New Deal, when they won a lot of important rights, guaranteed by the government. When the government stepped in, it took some moxie out of the unions themselves.
There were a number of other factors as well – the loss of jobs due to technology, the decentralization of labor away from large industrial capitols like Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Chicago. You had big business unionism, like the AFL-CIO, that took union leadership away from the rank-and-file. Unions also turned on themselves over communism in the 1950s, which was a sad episode. The unions were so frightened by the taint of radicalism that was used so effectively that unions began to police themselves. In doing so they ate out the heart of their own movement. Many powerful active unions were expelled. Members were purged for being left-leaning or suspected communists.
Then you had globalization, which we’re all familiar with. This has undermined American labor because it makes labor global. If you have a job in Toledo, your wages are competing against workers in Indonesia and Thailand and Mexico. Right away, that gives a huge advantage to capital in dealing with workers. All these things ate away at unions.
Q. Why are unions so often regarded as corrupt today?
A. The thing with corruption, and that taint that unions have – I think it’s a little unfair. The reason it sticks to unions so much is that, just like a nonprofit organization, the public looks to unions to be better than the average organization. They think of unions as good organizations that fight for social and economic justice, so when there is corruption, people are very disappointed and angry. They feel cheated. Those headlines tend to stick with people more than when they read about corruption in show business or sports or politics or even the church. There is no sector of American society untainted by corruption. The other thing I’ll say is that for every headline about a corrupt union leader, there are hundreds of local unions functioning legally and responsibly. Unions get tainted, tarred with this one brush.
Unions are still valid, and many operate very conscientiously and do what they were designed to do. They give workers a unified voice in dealing with management. Otherwise, what are you left with? The individual worker facing a company or employer. The odds are not in the worker’s favor necessarily. That’s where we are today, really. Union membership is down from 35 percent in 1955 to 7 percent of the American workforce now. People don’t take unions seriously anymore. I’m old enough to remember when union leaders were on TV or on the radio – today they’re relegated to the sidelines a bit. Our country has seen in the last 15 or 20 years these hugely powerful corporations that no one can really bridle, not even Congress. That’s not a good situation. The idea that we can just trust corporations to work in our interests has proven to be a fallacy. I do think unions were asleep at the wheel for a while. I think they’ve awakened – they’re organizing types of workers that were not organized before, like janitors, hospital workers, in Los Angeles they organized car wash workers. There is a lot of strong unionization.
The other thing that unions have to do is go global – they have to work in concert with laborers abroad. That’s a tall order and labor is behind. Corporations are way out in front. It’s very difficult for labor, which is why a lot of labor’s efforts on the world stage involve human rights groups, environmental groups, anti-sweatshop consumer leagues. It’s a different kind of labor movement.
Q. How successful have unions been in politics, particularly their relationship with the Democratic Party?
A. The writer Mike Davis has called the relationship between labor and the Democratic Party the barren marriage. It has been a disappointment. It has always been a big question in labor history whether unions should affiliate with a political party. In other countries, labor has its own party. That never happened in America. Many of our labor leaders warned against political affiliation. What happened is, starting with Woodrow Wilson, the Democrats showed themselves to be a bit more friendly to labor. The monumental triumph of that relationship was the New Deal. The Roosevelt administration, facing horrendous economic oppression, knew that normalizing relations between industry and labor was critical to getting the economy back on track. The New Deal established workers’ rights as nothing had before – collective bargaining rights, the minimum wage, ending child labor. That tended to bind labor even more firmly to the Democratic Party. But Harry Truman proved unable to defend labor’s New Deal achievements when Republicans attacked them. That was the beginning of the Democratic Party failing to come through for labor. It continued down and on. The party stepped up a bit with John Kennedy and the Manpower Development and Training Act. On the other hand, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and even Barack Obama have had trouble. They’ve tried and they are not always successful; labor thinks they haven’t tried hard enough. But labor has nowhere else to turn. Republicans are openly hostile to workers. But the relationship with Democrats has been frustrating. It has evolved that way.
Q. Do you think the recession will revitalize unions?
A. When I read the paper today, I think to the early Depression, when the unemployed considered themselves workers. Unions and the unemployed were unified. That created a very powerful block of protesters and people to go to rallies and even strikes. If there was a strike, legions of the unemployed would show up to support. Nowadays you don’t have that alliance anymore. Now we have something like 15 million unemployed Americans, but I don’t believe there is any organization. They’re sort of voiceless in a way.
I’d like to say, and I think you see this with some recent unionization, that economic hard times illuminate to people the fact that they are vulnerable, that the safety net is not what it once was, and they have to be more active about it. Unions are a perfect vehicle for that, as they have been historically, despite their retreat in recent years. I still believe you earn more and have better benefits if you’re a member of a union. That has been upheld statistically. I don’t know how extensive it is, but I do think that the recent organization of very low-wage workers is a reaction to economic hard times.
*Photo courtesy cliff1066.