Making the Unions Strong

Joseph A. McCartin Talks with Maxine Phillips


PATCO strikers at Detroit Labor Day rally

The U.S. labor movement is facing some of its greatest assaults in more than a hundred years. On this Labor Day 2017, we asked labor historian Joseph A. McCartin what lies ahead and how labor and its allies can make gains in such a hostile environment.—Ed.

DL: When many of us think about the modern-day attacks on labor unions, we think of the way Ronald Reagan broke the Professional Air Traffic Controllers’ Union (PATCO) in 1981. You’ve written about that strike and its effects, but do the roots of the attack go back further?

JAM: The PATCO strike was an important turning point in the fight to roll back unions and collective bargaining in the United States. No strike in the post-World War II era took place on a larger stage. No strike was broken more convincingly or produced a greater degree of demoralization across the labor movement. The air traffic controllers were a highly skilled, difficult-to-replace workforce. Not only were they fired for striking illegally (because they were federal workers), they were permanently replaced. 

The effects were devastating. Private-sector employers saw that they, too, could break strikes, and private-sector workers began to fear that they, too, could suffer the fate of PATCO’s strikers. All of that contributed to increasing employer aggression and a dwindling of strikes by private-sector workers: the average number of major work stoppages plummeted from 280 a year in the 1970s to 20 a year in the 2000s.

Yet, the PATCO strike wasn’t the beginning of the attack on unions. That strike took place at a crucial moment when deindustrialization, deregulation, corporate reorganization, the financialization of the economy, and the privatization of public services were all gathering momentum. These developments made workers vulnerable to employer aggression post-PATCO.

But the pushback against unions had been underway at least since 1946. The Wagner Act of 1935 and wartime protections of workers’ rights to unionize during the Second World War had led to a union consolidation that encompassed nearly a third of all non-agricultural wage earners. But once Republicans retook the Congress in the midterm elections of 1946, they began pushing back on employers’ behalf. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act weakened Wagner Act protections and led to a stalemate in private-sector labor relations that lasted into the mid-1970s. In the intervening time, unions began to grow in the public sector (expanding tenfold between 1955-1975). In the mid-1970s, though, “stagflation” (inflation coupled with high unemployment) hit the economy. This new context allowed employers to be more aggressive in both the private and the public sectors. In many ways, we have not recovered from the offensive that started in the 1970s and has not ceased since.

DL: The United States has one of the most brutal anti-labor records in the industrialized world. There were certain laws and Supreme Court decisions that aided workers’ struggles. These are now at risk. Could you tell us what’s at stake?

JAM: Most people are surprised to learn that the United States had a bloodier labor history than any other economically advanced nation. Employers here have been much more resistant to unions than employers in European countries. In part, this was due to the sheer size and scope of the U.S. economy, which for much of our history defied efforts at effective regulation. The shape of our economy encouraged and rewarded employers who avoided unionization and exploited their workers. Workers in turn resisted this exploitation.

Thus, during the period of our industrialization, violence was endemic. Employers hired gunmen and used blacklists and strikebreakers. Workers often armed themselves and fought back. At the “Battle of Blair Mountain” in West Virginia in 1921, to take one example, ten thousand armed coal miners, many recently returned from the First World War, did battle with thousands of armed company guards and strikebreakers, causing the U.S. Army to intervene.

What finally brought order to our labor relations was the federal government’s extension to workers of the right to organize and bargain. This began with the passage of the Railway Labor Act in 1926, but it really came to fruition with the New Deal and the Wagner Act of 1935. That act extended the right to organize and bargain to millions of workers. Although it excluded millions of others (agricultural, household domestic, and government workers) in order to win the approval of the segregationists who controlled key congressional committees, it was transformative in its impact. More than ten million workers joined unions who had never had the chance to do so before. 

Wagner Act poster

When it passed, no one was sure that the act would survive review by the Supreme Court, which had overturned many of the New Deal’s key programs. But in a crucial 5-4 decision, NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin, the court upheld the constitutionality of the act 80 years ago in 1937. 

The Wagner Act established an approach to labor relations that could be called the workplace-government model. Under that model, once a majority of workers decided to form a union they could negotiate a contract that covered all of their colleagues in that workplace. That contract could require everyone represented by the union to help pay for the costs of the union’s representation. This model created a strong union movement coming out of the Second World War. In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act weakened that model by allowing states to pass so-called “right to work” laws that forbade unions from negotiating contracts in which union-represented workers paid for the costs of their representation. 

States all over the South immediately enacted such laws. In time, the “right to work” model spread beyond the South. Currently, 28 states have such laws. Everywhere these laws passed, the workplace government model and the unions that served as workers’ vehicles under that model were weakened. This weakness contributed to the dwindling of union power in the private sector, where now only 6 percent of workers are in unions.

To some extent the labor movement was able to make up for the weakening of private-sector unions by spreading the workplace-government model to the public sector. Beginning in the late 1950s, government workers’ unions grew. By the 1970s, these unions began to win state laws that allowed them to collect “agency fees” from the workers they represented. In 1977, in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of these fees. 

Now, we are at risk of losing the workplace-government model in the public sector. Since the 1970s, anti-unionists have been arguing that state and local government workers ought not be required to pay any fees to the unions that represent them. They claim that such fees infringe on their First Amendment rights of freedom of speech, because they might not agree with their union’s political positions. In the upcoming term, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider this argument in a case called Janus v. AFSCME. Now that Donald Trump has installed Neil Gorsuch on the court, it would appear that the court is inclined to rule against the unions. If it does, this will represent the most significant reversal of the Wagner Act’s model of workplace-government since the passage of Taft-Hartley. It would dramatically weaken unions in states where they are currently a strong influence, such as New York and California, and it will open the whole labor movement to further attacks from its opponents.  If NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin confirmed the ascendance of the New Deal labor order, Janus v. AFSCME might confirm its demise. The Janus case thus represents a serious threat to organized labor’s survival.

DL: What can those of us who support unions do to aid them?

JAM: If nothing else, the depths of the current crisis and the threat of losing the gains of decades encourage us to return to first principles, to see more clearly why we need a strong labor movement, and to consider again what the goals of that movement must be. Senator Robert Wagner, author of the 1935 act, believed in and advocated for what he called “industrial democracy.” He believed that political democracy would not survive in an era of mammoth corporations unless workers had power and a voice in the workplace. If work relations were not democratized, democracy itself would be snuffed out.

Democracy has clearly been in retreat in both the workplace and our politics over recent decades. The revival of political democracy will have to proceed hand in hand with the revival of democracy in work relations. We can’t accomplish one without the other. 

DSA has a special role to play here. Its vision has always recognized the inseparability of political democracy and democracy in work relations. Its members, and especially the young people who have been drawn into its ranks over the past two years, are well positioned to help reframe and update that old vision of industrial democracy, which has become an anachronism in this world of Uber-ized “independent contractors,” global supply chains, precarious workers, hedge funds, and private-equity billionaires. We need to reformulate the argument for democracy at work in ways that resonate with and respond to 21st-century realities. And we need to rebuild worker organizations that can help achieve that democracy. We can all play a part in that effort with our money, our time, our intellectual energy, our spirit. It has never been more important that each of put our shoulders to the wheel than it is now.

Joseph A. McCartin is professor of history and executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. He is the author of Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America.

This article originally appeared in the Labor Day 2017 issue of Democratic Left magazine.

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