With union membership on the decline, wages stagnant, and worker satisfaction at an all-time low, the United States is in need of a new form of worker organization.
As the industrial revolution hit America in the late 1700s, a vast majority of the population began moving towards Urban areas (Kennedy). This is essentially when the postcolonial issue of workers rights began. As more and more people moved into urban areas and became dependent on factory jobs, the low wages employers provided had to be accepted by the workers who lived there, as they were left powerless without other employment options (Kennedy). Their inability to change their situation was due to an ever-present inequality of bargaining power between employers and the employed. What could one worker alone do to change an entire corporation’s policy? The solution to this issue came in the form of the labor union. One of the first legal battles over worker organization occurred in 1804 when workers went on strike trying to leverage for high wages, and their employer took them to court. The case, Commonwealth vs. Pullis traveled to the Supreme court. They lost the case, setting a precedent that made striking a federal crime (Nahil). But this was only the beginning of the federal government’s involvement in suppressing worker organization. Then there was the Sherman antitrust act, which was meant to be used against monopolies but was disproportionately used to break up unions instead (Labor History Timeline: 1607 – 1999). Further on, other laws such as the Taft-Hartley act of 1947 and other “Right to Work” laws continue to be passed by different states weakening the power and influence of unions, putting them on a steady decline in membership towards today’s levels (Labor History Timeline: 1607 – 1999). In addition, there also was obviously corporate suppression of labor unions, whose presence lowered profits. Some of the most notable acts of corporate suppression were so blatant and violent, they were even posted on the front pages of newspapers around the nation. One example is of Ludlow massacre, where 23 striking coal miners were killed with machine guns (National Endowment for the Humanities).
Despite the national spotlight on this case and many others like it, very little meaningful justice was served. Corporations continued to bust unions and prevent union elections through intimidation without the worry of government opposition. Despite this, individuals concerned with the current helplessness of workers against corporations continued to form local and national labor unions. In 1870 Terence V. Powderly formed the Knights of Labor whose membership grew to nearly ¾ of a million people in 1884 (Kennedy). After the Haymarket square tragedy destroyed the Knights, they were replaced by Samuel Gompers American federation of labor, which soon grew to the Knights previous size (Kennedy). These unions fought for higher wages, and other issues workers faced on the job. Eventually, the individual strides made by labor organizers solidified into legislation. The most major being the Federal Employers Liability Act of 1908, forcing companies to compensate for those injured on the job, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which forced employers to pay overtime, set a minimum wage, and made it illegal to hire children under the age of 14 (Labor History Timeline: 1607 – 1999). Other Important events included the formation of the Department of Labor, and the Clayton Antitrust act of 1914, Giving Unions more government support to back their operations (Labor History Timeline: 1607 – 1999).
All of these instances paint an inspiring picture of organized labor, fighting past corporate and state oppression to achieve better lives for the working man. Yet in the 1920s and 30s, a new darker side of the labor union emerged. One entangled in corruption, violence and organized crime. According to sociologist James B. Jacob’s of Johns Hopkins University, Unions are extremely vulnerable to bribery, extortion, embezzlement, pension fraud and other forms of racketeering, partially due to the absolute trust and unwavering loyalty many workers have to their union (Jacobs). Throughout prohibition and the 1930s, Unions served as a stronghold for the mafia and other organized crime groups. Many workers were hurt by the violence and intimidation the Mafia used to leverage union leaders, on top of the massive amounts of fraud and embezzlement that literally robbed them of their hard earned money (Jacobs). These issues of fraud in unions persist even into the near-present day. This leaves a rather mixed bag of historical evidence supporting worker organization and labor unions. While they have been extremely effective in protecting workers rights despite corporate and legislative attempts to stop them, they have become strongholds for organized crime in many cases, leading to death and injustice for many.
The main labor issues our country’s workers face today is a low rate of worker organization, compounded with many inefficiencies labor unions inherently have. Organized labor has been on the decline for decades. According to the Department of labor, union membership has declined from 28% in 1967 to only 11.5% in 2012 (Dunn). Mainly responsible for the decline of the American labor union is the “Right to Work Law”. Right to work laws are meant to protect individual employees from the possibly oppressive power of the labor union. They dictate that a union cannot require a worker they represent to pay dues. These laws created an incentive to leave the union, as you can avoid paying dues while still retaining almost all of the benefits. Compounding this issue are the multiple inefficiencies of labor unions in our modern day. One major issue is involvement in organized crime. Labor unions are vulnerable to many forms of labor racketeering such as embezzlement, bribery, rigging union elections, and worker intimidation. According to the US Department of Labor, from 2001 to 2015, union leaders have been prosecuted for embezzling over 100 million dollars in union dues (Hayes). Remember this figure only accounts for those who were caught by the Office of Labor-Management Standards (OLMS), with the real cost to union members being impossible to tell.
Understanding the advantages of Labor Unions
What you can do:
There are many actions an individual can take to help improve and expand both unions, and other organized labor models. If you are in an open shop workplace where you can choose to not be in a union but still receive benefits, consider joining the union. This would not only further empower the union to fight for benefits for you, but you will also prevent it from running out of funding by becoming an additional dues-paying member. If one wanted to be even more proactive, They could even form a union in their own workplace. If you, for example, we’re working a non-union job and your employer is not treating you and your coworkers well, there is a possibility that you and some of your co-workers could organize and start a union. Doing this is very difficult, but doable. If someone wished to do this, they could get in contact with an AFL-CIO union organizer who would walk them through the process. Finally, if someone was in the unlikely position of a business owner who is ready to retire or change careers, they could consider following the path of many others and offer their employees the opportunity to communally buy the company from them. By doing this, they would make the same profit that they would form from selling to any other entity. However, they would also create a worker cooperative which would guarantee the voices of workers at their company are heard in the future. Also, politically, you can call your senator or representative and ask them to support an OLMS funding increase in the next budget, or for them to support the workplace democracy act. If your state has Right to work laws, contact your representative and ask them to support their repeal. Finally, you could make donations to, or join small organizations like the U.S Federation of Worker Cooperatives, who help support and create Co-ops all over the United States.
On the governmental level, data supports that giving OMLS funding increases helps resolve an increased number of union corruption cases. This action would be a major step towards resolving the racketeering problem in unions. The passage of the Workplace Democracy Act would also put an end to all state right to work laws. In addition, the government could provide tax breaks and low-interest loans to cooperatives, which would make them even more competitive in the market. The government could also follow the path of the UK Labor Party’s proposal and give workers first priority to buy out the company’s assets during a bankruptcy filing. This would make every single bankruptcy filing in the country an opportunity to create a new cooperative. There is an array of historical examples and current research that supports the validity of these solutions. According to the Economic Policy institute, Right To Work laws reduce union membership by an average of 9.6% (Eisenbrey). This data makes it clear that repealing Right to work would increase union membership. In addition, after consistent small funding increases under the Bush administration from 2001 to 2009, the number of compliance audits the OLMS was able to carry out increased by 400% (McCarthy). Finally, Spain’s has a system that grants tax credits to cooperatives, which has helped cooperatives grow faster than in any other country, with some of the largest corporations in Europe residing there as cooperatives (Mestere). This real-world example of the tax credit system for cooperatives supports the idea that such a system could also work elsewhere. Overall, while there are many problems facing worker organization today, there are many ways they can be combated on both the individual and governmental level.
All of my family members on my mother’s side are or were union workers for their entire working lives. Hearing a lot about organized labor history and its current issues at the dinner table led me towards this intriguing topic.
My other papers on this topic
I have written 3 other papers that each go far more in-depth into specific sections of this topic. You can find them here.