Having won collective bargaining rights during the Depression and having helped organize wartime production, the percentage of private sector workers organized by unions peaked at 36 percent in 1949. But with militant activists purged during the Cold War, and the Democratic Party uninterested in major reforms, the union leaders dropped their broad political demands for full employment, national health care, expanded social security, more public housing, and civil rights for African Americans.
They focused, instead, on winning better wages, working conditions, and pensions through collective bargaining. In this way American “business unions” became dependent on capitalists’ willingness to negotiate.
With profits high, businesses were willing to bargain, and for about twenty years living standards rose for many workers. By the 1970s, however, a crisis of profitability resulted from several factors, including increased foreign competition, the costs of the Vietnam War, the arms race, the rising costs of energy, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program. The crisis fueled renewed conflict between capital and labor.
In 1981 Ronald Reagan’s decision to crush a major strike by the Air Traffic Controllers’ Union signaled the onset of a state-supported capitalist offensive designed to break organized labor. In a decades-long campaign, corporations and their appendages, such as the Republican Party, the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity attacked unions by transferring union jobs to low-wage, non-union shops at home and abroad, developing new “union busting” techniques, and through legislative and judicial means. As a result, private sector union representation has fallen to 6.5 percent today.
Recently, the Supreme Court dealt workers two particularly sharp blows. In May the Court ruled against workers joining class action suits against employers if their contracts call for arbitration to resolve grievances. Since such contracts are common, the Court’s ruling means that millions of workers can only sue firms as individuals, a time-consuming, expensive, and practically impossible task.
Even worse was the Court’s ruling – the Janus decision – that local and state public sector unions (in which 34 percent of the workforce is organized) can no longer charge non-union members fees for the cost of their services, even though everyone in the shop benefits from the contract. This decision, a long-time goal of anti-labor forces in the U.S., effectively destroys the so-called “closed shop,” in which all workers bore some of the costs of representation. It will significantly reduce public sector union revenues and membership, as some will elect to become “free riders” rather than pay dues. Unions will have fewer resources to serve their constituents, to organize, and to support political campaigns.
Despite these setbacks, all is not lost for American unions. Workers here, like workers elsewhere, have organized under worse conditions. What is needed, however, is leadership prepared to fight rather than simply do “business” with capital.
Models abound at home and abroad. In Europe unions have not had the advantage of the “closed shop,” but effective approaches to organizing and the skillful forging of political alliances have helped unions in many countries to maintain much higher membership levels than in the U.S, ranging, for example, from an average of 70 percent in Scandinavian countries to just below 20 percent in Germany and Spain.
Democratically organized unions that facilitate rank and file organizing and real solidarity among members can also lead to success. In Chile, a country in which labor has only just recovered from 15 years of fascist repression under Pinochet, workers have successfully organized against Walmart by combining the building of democratic unions with strikes, demonstrations, and extensive public outreach.
Finally, a particularly inspiring example of the potential vibrancy of labor has been the successful teachers’ strikes and mass demonstrations that recently swept such anti-labor red states as West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arizona. These actions clearly illustrated the power of labor movements that link the demands of the impacted workers to the broader public interest.
As long as unions can make that link they will remain a force in American life.