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A brief overview of the US Labor Movement: Part I

September 1, 2019

Today is Labor Day. Most people will enjoy the day off, relaxing with family and likely throwing something on the grill. It’s funny, that there is only one day of the year that is dedicated to celebrating working people. The reality is that working people are the very people who generate most of the wealth in the US, but they do not get to keep it.

The history of working class people and organized labor is something that we do not learn in the K – 12 education system and often not even at the university level. Business classes are the norm, even business majors, but working class history and how to organize unions are phrases that are rarely uttered in college classrooms.

The history of working class people organizing themselves has been part of the US from the very beginning, This history is complex and unions have not always made working class people the focus of their existence, especially people of color.

In the 19th century, labor unions in the US provided people with an opportunity to fight against the tyranny of capital. However, labor unions did not agree on the best way to achieve justice. One of the oldest union, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), particularly under the leadership of Samuel Gompers, believed that the system of capitalism was a fair system, but it needed organized labor for checks and balances. The AFL was essentially a business union and took the approach that workers should negotiate with businesses, rather than be antagonistic to the capitalist class.

On the other end of the spectrum there were radical unions such as the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which believed that capitalism was the enemy and that workers did not need bosses and should cooperatively manage economics that would benefit all working class people.

Unions like the IWW believed in using direct action tactics, such as strike, wildcat strikes, work slow-downs and work stoppages. The more radical unions also believed that anyone could join their union, as long as you were not a boss.

There were periods of massive labor unrest, where hundreds of thousands of workers were organized in such a way that challenged the power of the capitalist class. These periods included the 1880s – the end of the 19th century, the early part of the 20th century and the period just after the Great Depression. The power that organized labor demonstrated during the late 19th Century and up to the 1930s is well documented in books like, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the US Working Class, by Mike Davis; Strike, by Jeremy Brecher; and, The Fall of the House of Labor, by David Montgomery. For example, in the early 1930s, there were several thousand separate labor strikes, with more than a million workers participating in those strikes. One result of all the direct action of organized labor, was the policies adopted by the Roosevelt administration, also known as the New Deal. None of these policies would have been adopted without the direct action of organized labor.

However, when the US government formally made labor unions legal, with the passage of the Wagner Act in 1934, it began to shift the fight from the factory floor to the courts. This shift is well documented in David Montgomery’s book The Fall of the House of Labor, as well as by radical historian Howard Zinn who said:

Unions were not wanted by employers, but they were more controllable – more stabilizing for the system than wildcat strikes, the factory occupations of the rank and file.”

In fact, by 1946, the main demand in contract talks from the UAW at companies like General Motors, was “union responsibility for uninterrupted production.”

The Cold War and McCarthyism also saw most of the mainstream unions siding with the US government, where Communists were purged from union ranks and labor leadership cooperated with the McCarthy Hearings. This is also the period when the Taft-Hartley Act was adopted (1947). Taft-Hartley was essentially an anti-labor strike law that took away any real tactical power that unions had.

The post WWII period also saw another major shift with organized labor, which decided to back the Democratic Party. President Harry Truman got labor backing when he agreed to veto the Taft-Hartley Act, if the unions would get behind his re-election. Congress, with the support of many Democrats were able to override Truman’s veto, but Truman said that he would repeal it in his second term. Truman never even attempted to repeal Taft-Hartley and this began a process where the main unions abandoned any serious challenge to the capitalist class and started pumping millions of dollars into the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party has never really made working class concerns the center of their platform, but were able to keep organized labor loyal to their party (spending millions endorsing candidates) by arguing that the Republicans were worse when it came to economic matters. For more details on this history see The Democrats: A Critical History, by Lance Selfa. 

There have been attempts to revise organized labor since the 1960s, with the farm workers movement, embodied by the UFW and FLOC, along with black-led labor insurgency in industrial sectors such as the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) in Detroit that began in 1968.

Other radical labor efforts have happened in the past few decades, with a revitalization of the IWW, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC), the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and Nurses Union and recent shifts amongst teacher unions across the country. However, union membership has continued to decline and working class movements are often marginalized.

If you go to the Labor Day Celebration in Grand Rapids today, you will see lots of tables for Democratic candidates. In addition, there will be numerous Democratic candidates speaking to the crowd about the importance of backing the Democratic Party. What you will not hear are working class people talking about strikes or other forms of direct action being used against companies that want to suppress worker rights.

While this does not paint a terribly positive picture about the power of working class people, there are efforts outside of mainstream unions that are demonstrating the power of organized labor. We mentioned the teacher unions that have won major victories in the last few years in several states across the country. There is also a growing immigrant justice movement that is seeking to use the power of boycotts and strikes to win the demands of immigrants.

Organized labor can be a threat to the interests of the capitalist class, but only if it organizes itself with goals that are inherently anti-capitalist. Organized labor can be a threat to the capitalist class if it uses Direct Action tactics and if it see itself as part of larger social movements like the immigrant justice movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, Queer & trans liberation movements or the Climate Justice movement. Labor Unions which are not part of these lager liberation movements will signal the death of organized labor. 

In Part II, we will discuss the history of the labor movement in the Grand Rapids area.

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