What unions did for America. We should miss them.

Summary: Americans consider a prosperous middle class to be our just due. We forgot how generations of union activists helped create it. The middle class existed for only a few generations, and survived the crushing of unions by only a few decades. On this Labor Day let’s remember the lost history of the union movement, learn from it – and do better in the future.

Union: bargain or beg


The rise and fall of unions.

In the mid-1970s Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) was a key part of the labor movement. Its graduates were the vanguard of the labor movement – trained to continue the progress of the previous 110 years. The progress that had played a large role in building America’s large middle class. The ILR students I knew were idealistic, hard-working, and confident they were on the winning side (it was the 1970s).

The ILR students were trained in the social and political sciences, and in business. They did not know they should have been studying strategy and tactics from the West Point curriculum. Corporate leaders had decided to roll back the New Deal, and breaking unions was a key part of that. War, of a sorts, had been declared – an undeclared war, lavishly financed by patient capital, and one executed by people as talented as those from Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Forty years later the union movement is broken, with the last bastions – such as government employees – now under attack. It was one of the first institutions to fall in the ongoing collapse of America’s institutions (see A new, dark picture of America’s future).

Labor Unions

The rise of America’s middle class

“To remember the loneliness, the fear and the insecurity of men who once had to walk alone in huge factories, beside huge machines. To realize that labor unions have meant new dignity and pride to millions of our countrymen. To be able to see what larger pay checks mean, not to a man as an employee, but as a husband and as a father. To know these things is to understand what American labor means.”

— Adlai Stevenson’s speech to the American Federation of Labor in NYC on 22 Sept. 1952.

The middle class was not a gift to us from the Blue Fairy. Instead of “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”, workers mobilized against their employers. It took generations after the Civil War to build America’s middle class, and unions were a large factor making it happen. They provided organization, political muscle, money for research, and trained people to counter the massive institutional power of corporations.

It was a long bloody struggle, For a blow-by-blow of unions’ rise see this series by Erik Loomis (Assoc. Prof of History, U RI). The toll paid by union members – in time, work, and often blood – is as much a cost of building America as that paid by the members of our armed forces. Here are some of the battles in this long struggle.

Struggles during the long decline.

In response corporations organized cartels to fight their workers and raise prices for their customers. They bought politicians in bulk. This was part of their plan to roll back the New Deal. It has been very successful

Labor Stands for All Who Work - Vote Labor

Throwing away the gains from 110 years of struggle

Gains from generations of struggle were lost carelessly in a generation. Many unions were internally weaker than they looked at their peak, with widespread corruption, stupid and greedy leaders, and infiltrated by organized crime. This made the successful counter-revolution by corporations much easier.

As a sign of their brazen return to power, mega-corps have re-instituted illegal wage cartels: such as those reveal among technology companies and entertainment companies – plus those we don’t know about (these are easy to hide if done informally). What will America look after another generation of corporate attacks on workers?

The fall of unions was a major factor undermining the middle class.

Since 1970 wages have been falling as a share of Gross Domestic Income (GDI); since 1990 profits are rising. See the graphs below. The reasons are complex, the result has by now become unmistakable: a shift of our national income from return on labor to return on capital. Since the nation’s wealth is so highly concentrated, the result is rising inequality of income.

The actual decline of workers’ pay is worse than shown in this graph, since these “wages” include the vast sums paid to senior corporate managers – sums beyond anything seen until 1980s. Click to enlarge.

Compensation of employees as share of GDI

Profits as a share of Gross Domestic Income fell for generations, reversing after 1990. Since then every day is Christmas for plutocrats! Click to enlarge.

Corporate Profits as percent of Gross Domestic Income.


For More Information

Vital to remember: “The Myth of the Middle Class” by Alan Nasser (professor emeritus of political economy, Evergreen State College) at CounterPunch. Most Americans have been poor since the 1% took control in the late 19th century, crushing the independent craftsmen and farmers with frequent and long depressions. The post-WWII era is an exception.

Also see “Bargaining for the American Dream; What Unions do for Mobility” by Richard Freeman et al at the Center for American Progress.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about unions, about ways to reform America, and especially these posts about the building of a New America on the ruins of the America-that-once-was …

  1. Why Americans should love Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – we live there,
  2. The new American economy: concentrating business power to suit an unequal society.
  3. Public employee unions – an anvil chained to the Democratic Party.
  4. Why the 1% is winning, and we are not – They are smart, organized, and have planned how to win.
  5. Before you celebrate Labor Day, look at the reality of America’s workers.
  6. Much of what we love about America was true only for a moment.
  7. We played while the 1% ran a revolution, quietly.

How to destroy unions: the book

Against Labor:
How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism.

Editors Rosemary Feurer and Chad Pearson.

Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism
Aailable at Amazon.

Review by Jeffrey Sklansk, author of The Soul’s Economy: Market Society and Selfhood in American Thought, 1820-1920.

“The decline of organized labor in recent decades is often attributed to globalization, financialization, and right-wing politics. But the compelling essays in this important volume show that the limits to workers’ collective power stem more basically from the concerted anti-union efforts of their employers dating back to the nineteenth century. Chronicling how capitalists have effectively forged a class-conscious social movement ‘against labor,’ these critical case studies make a vital contribution to the history of capitalism while illuminating the challenges facing workers today.”

A description from the publisher ….

Against Labor highlights the tenacious efforts by employers to organize themselves as a class to contest labor. Ranging across a spectrum of understudied issues, essayists explore employer anti-labor strategies and offer incisive portraits of people and organizations that aggressively opposed unions. Other contributors examine the anti-labor movement against a backdrop of larger forces, such as the intersection of race and ethnicity with anti-labor activity, and anti-unionism in the context of neoliberalism.

“A timely and revealing collection, Against Labor deepens our understanding of management history and employer activism and their metamorphic effects on workplace and society.”


18 thoughts on “What unions did for America. We should miss them.”

  1. Larry,

    At the auto dealership level in the 1970’s. A new owner took over the Ford dealership I worked at, a non-union shop with constant talk of unionizing.

    He got the shop together and said something to this effect;
    Men, if you ever try to get a union in my shop, I’ll close the doors for two weeks and open under a new name. You will all be out of jobs and can apply for new ones.

    There never was another mention of a union.

      1. Larry,

        That new owner turned out to be a decent man as dealer principles go. The ongoing issues doing warranty work for the manufacturers remain and grow worse.

        A lot of weak sisters in the auto repair industry, The Ford Motor Company and other manufacturers screw dealership techs daily doing warranty work.
        Flat rate system where they pay low labor times to fix their mistakes. I’m glad I’m retired.

  2. A look at tomorrow. Very good documentary.

    American Factory Grapples With the Notion of Freedom” by David Sims at The Atlantic – “The Netflix documentary charts the economic and social issues that converge when the Chinese company Fuyao moves into a former General Motors plant in Ohio.”

    “In 2014, Fuyao bought part of a closed General Motors assembly plant in Ohio and created thousands of jobs, revitalizing a local industrial sector that had fallen on desperately hard times when GM left town during the 2008 recession. American Factory charts the wave of exultation that greeted the arrival of Fuyao, followed by culture clashes, growing pains, and eventually forms of internal and external pushback that had been largely unknown to the company. The film is a captivating examination of the notion of “freedom” promised in that opening presentation: how limited and illusory it can be, and how widely the concept’s meaning can vary around the world.”

    1. Mike,

      Have you seen the film? Note this:

      “Though American Factory is very much a story about two different workplace cultures figuring out how to interact, its narrative also fits with Reichert’s interest in documenting the struggles of American radicalism and its conflicts with the country’s capitalist infrastructure. …this is not a polemic, but rather an attempt to understand every side of an unhappy situation.”

      Atlantic articles are often polemics, and as such not noted for their accuracy. “Radical filmmaker” and “not a polemic” aren’t always opposites, but that’s a good working assumption imo.

      Also, see the conclusion.

      “Fuyao’s presence in Ohio is an undeniable boon, an investment in an area where people felt abandoned by U.S. businesses, but Bognar and Reichert’s film is a reminder that capitalism is always double-edged.”

      Welcome to the real world, Mr. Sims – where pretty much everything is “double-edged.” Even whatever radical ideology that Sims prefers to free-market capitalism.

      1. Yes, I watched it Friday night. Very interesting.

        Also, I was looking at this from China’s Unrestricted Warfare Grand Strategy. From that perspective, it was fascinating.

    2. In the simplest form, it’s a strategic raid- taunting as a form of psychological warfare.

      It could backfire.

      In the film, you see entitlement from the Americans and arrogance from the Chinese. Both sides show despair for the working man.

    1. Sarge,

      I suspect you – like most political extremists, Left and Right in America today – read purely extremist sites and believe everything you are told. Our elites live this, as it makes people easily led. Pleasant peasants.

      We can’t know what happened. But a jury looked at the stories told by both sides (yes, there were stories by both sides) and found the defendants not guilty of assaulting Ken Gladney.

      St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “Two charged in scuffle at St. Louis County meeting found not guilty.

  3. Then there’s the union that I was forced to belong to in California. Showed up every couple weeks and took the manager to lunch. Rode new Harley’s and wore heavy gold rings. Had a grievance because the contract said we had to have lunch at least four hours after the day started and the boss was making us take lunch about two hours after the start of the ten hour working day so as not to interfere with the rush time. Union went to lunch with him and our lunch didn’t change.

    Then there’s the SEIU who pushes for card check certification to prevent secret ballots and shows up at people’s houses late at night to harass them into signing.

    Then there’s the Washington State Education Association (union) who shows up at our school for a contract ratification meeting and tells all the members that we can get a better deal, even while the actual negotiators,who have done a really good job for us over the years, are trying to get a contract ratified. End result: members voted no and we ended up with a slightly worse deal.

    Perhaps some of the union issues we have had is not due solely to employer action (they are acting in their rational best interests also) but due to arrogance and overreach by the unions. Best thing that ever happened to the unions was the Janus decision which hopefully will force them to figure out why people are leaving and try to entice them back rather than bully them back. Unfortunately I am seeing too many cases where the response of the unions is to either make it really difficult for people to leave (short time windows, misleading paperwork, obscure exit process) or push for state legislation to get around Janus (in Washington state there have been serious proposals to replace lost union funding with tax dollars).

    Unions were definitely a good thing at one point. They certainly could be and probably are a good thing in certain circumstances now. Right now, however, I’d say that many unions are drunk on their own power and arrogant in their certainty of rightness.

    1. Heresolong,

      “Perhaps some of the union issues we have had is not due solely to employer action”

      Absolutely. As I mention in this post, we are suffering broad institutional collapse in America. Clicking on the link takes you to a post describing why: they reply on citizen participation, and we treat them as cruise ships – with us as passengers. Unions are a prime example.

      “they are acting in their rational best interests also”

      Is that a defense? So are thieves and dictators.

      “Right now, however, I’d say that many unions are drunk on their own power and arrogant in their certainty of rightness.”

      That’s bizarrely false. They are being crushed and fighting for their existence. They’re not doing it well, a common response to panic. See any drowning person.

  4. Pingback: What unions did for America. We should miss them. – Fabius Maximus website | gottadobetterthanthis

  5. Having never been in a union.

    Yes unions have done both good and bad things in the past but I have concerns about bringing unions back.

    How much of my salary goes to the Union vs what I get from them?

    How much of my union dues goes to political candidates I am opposed to?

    Will I just have a second boss I have to obey? My work boss and then my union boss?

    1. Sven,

      You appear to be reading a lot of anti-union propaganda. Easy to do, since the news overflows with it. Your questions are easy to answer.

      “How much of my salary goes to the Union vs what I get from them?”

      Very little.

      How much of my union dues goes to political candidates I am opposed to?

      Very little. Note that businesses funnel vast sums into anti-union political candidates. Unions are creatures of the labor laws. Unions have faded as those protections are stripped away. But that is the history of modern America. Many see themselves as bold stand-alone pioneers, unaware of the proections that make their comfortable lives possible. It makes us easy to rule.

      I recommend reading Charles A Beard’s “The Myth of Rugged Individualism” in the December 1931 issue of Harpers. So far as I can see, all copies of this on the Internet have been deleted. For good reason: this is transgressive wisdom.

      “Will I just have a second boss I have to obey? My work boss and then my union boss?”

      What do you think he will order you to do? Also, union officials are – unlike your employer – elected by members of the union. Like all Democratic institutions, you get out of them what you put in. They’re not restaurants where you pay a few bucks and then get to complain if the food isn’t sufficiently awesome.

  6. Yea yea, books-deep state. Wtf does any of that have to do with Trump’s lies, his refusal to reveal his taxes and his continuous praise of Putin, a murderous dictator. What does any of that have to do with Trump standing on a stage in Helsinki and siding with Putin instead of our own world renowned law enforcement and intelligence agencies. That alone to me is high treason.

    1. Joe,

      (1) “Wtf does any of that have to do with Trump’s lies,

      • McCarthy extensively documents Trump’s lies. These posts look at only a few aspects of his 350-page opus.
      • Trump’s lies have been unusual in their frequency (even more frequent than Bill Clinton’s, the previous record-holder), but relatively low in impact. For example, he hasn’t started any large wars with lies – as did LBJ and Bush Jr.
      • Lies by high US officials have been SOP since roughly 1960 (perhaps increasing in frequency). See the Big List of Lies. Note that we don’t seem to mind, so they probably figure “why not lie?”

      (2) “his refusal to reveal his taxes”

      Nothing. Most people learn as children that no one thing is the One-and-Only thing. Life is complex.

      (3) “his continuous praise of Putin, a murderous dictator.”

      Let’s replay the tape!

      “He enacted policies more hostile to Russia than Obama’s (e.g., tighter and broader sanctions). He massively boosted military spending beyond its previous mad peaks.”

      I think Putin probably prefers the harsh words but light policies of Obama to the friendly words and harsh deeds of Trump – and wishes he had to deal with the friendly Hillary of the Uranium One deal.

      (4) “own world renowned law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

      Too funny to comment on. Read the newspapers and some history.

      (5) “That alone to me is high treason.”

      Wow, that’s authoritarian! Speech that you don’t like is “treason.” Are you auditioning for a job with the Ministry of Truth? Putin might give you a job, but you seem unsuited for life in America. No wonder you’re unhappy here.

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