Americans have a short memory. Some argue that makes us great. For now it provides me with ongoing purpose and work.
Today’s meme is the inequity of allowing public labor unions to collectively bargain, and a number of Tea Party GOP governors are supporting legislation that would strip those unions of their bargaining rights. These governors assert that labor union power is directly responsible for the fiscal crisis that states are experiencing, and that, only without the specter of collective bargaining will lawmakers have the managerial flexibility to properly shepherd the state. Given that the public sector has flourished as well as suffered in the presence of public unions (which are 50 years old this year), it seems unlikely that there is a managerial need to eliminate them. Instead, we must look to ideology for an explanation of this campaign. But if GOP governors have a new vision for the future of American society, it seems fair that we ask what it is, and more importantly, if Americans remember what our society was like before labor unions were accepted.
As a midwesterner, I have access to a rich collection of labor conflict stories, from my own backyard. So rich, in fact, that merely listing them paints such a horrific picture of life in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century that we should all grab our armbands and look forward to May Day celebrations. I’m tempted to go in chronological order, but it’s better if we consider a couple of themes.
In the days before “government regulation” and “workplace rules”, employers were free to treat laborers like disposable property, and they regularly did. One of the easiest ways to keep labor costs low was to leverage demographic groups against each other. There are excellent examples of this during labor unrest in southern Illinois, around the turn of the last century. In 1898, after coal miners were locked out of their mine in Virden, Illinois (not far from Springfield), the mine operator assembled negro [note: I use that term to reflect historical writings and the contemporary attitude] strikebreakers on a train in St. Louis. Upon their arrival, the ensuing gun battle left nineteen people dead. While the ownership backed down at Virden, the story was different a few miles away, in Pana, Illinois. Negroes broke that strike and a number of private security guards wound up dead from gun violence. Two decades later, the same technique was used in Carterville, Illinois. There, Italian immigrants were pitted against natives to break strikes and keep wages low. Operators found this tactic to be successful when they didn’t have to worry about the solidarity of organized labor. Unfortunately, their lack of concern not only created deep divisions, bigotry and violence in the workplace, but consequently in the community-at-large, as animosity followed coal miners home.
More stunning is the use of force to oppress workers. The Pinkerton Agency had an entire division available for infiltrating labor organizations in the workplace and disrupting organizing efforts, by force if necessary. They famously attacked Irish-American workers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in 1885 during a strike, and were involved in deadly violence during the Homestead Steel Works strike of 1892. In 1904, during the Zeigler Coal Company strike, in Zeigler, Illinois, they fortified the mine and worked alongside U.S. Marshals to guard it. That’s right: militias in the hands of private enterprise to enforce labor cooperation. While this may seem unfathomable today, it is nonetheless troubling to listen to the Governor of Wisconsin discussing the use of confederates to sow disturbances within a group of peaceful demonstrators.
Now, you might be tempted to say, “but the miners were simply being unreasonable. They were ungrateful for their jobs.” That would be a mischaracterization. The United States Coal Commission, in a report investigating the Herrin Massacre of 1922, stated the following (from Paul Angle’s Bloody Williamson, pg. 13):
When mining began [their report read]… it was upon a ruinously competitive basis. Profit was the sole object; the life and health of the employees was of no moment. Men worked in water half-way up to their knees, in gas-filled rooms, in unventilated mines where the air was so foul that no man could work long without seriously impairing his health. There was no workmen’s compensation law; accidents were frequent. …The average daily wage of the miner was from $1.25 to $2.00.
Then, in 1898 and 1899, came the union.
The Workmen’s Compensation Law was enacted. Earnings advanced to $7.00 and even $15.00 a day; improvement in the working conditions was reflected in the appearance of the workmen, their families, their manner of life and their growing cities and public improvements.
I could go on, but there are so many books and monographs written on this subject that I can really only lend a bit of emphasis. For those of you who say that we can’t go back to the subsistence living, fifty-year lifespan of the working class in the nineteenth-century, I say to you many of my business friends asserted that gutting Glass-Steagall in the 1990s would not lead to a financial meltdown. The simple truth is we can go back; in fact the very purpose of all this is to go back. The assault on public unions isn’t about liberty, it’s about creating the least expensive labor pool for corporate owners. When minimum standards are removed, then standards will fall below what we now consider minimal. It’s just that simple.
At its foundation, this is a struggle of political ideology and economic class. It is about a specific vision of the future, held by wealthy business owners and the politicians that do their bidding. Whether or not you are a union member, or part of a union family, there is an economic benefit of collective bargaining that must be realized. My concern is maintaining the equilibrium that preserves economic justice in our society, because the “free” market won’t do it on its own. People will be poor, and people will be rich, but no one should have oppressive power over another. That is my vision of a free society.