Unions are still relevant

Labor Day should commemorate the names of Terence V. Powderly, Joe Hill, Mother Jones, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Big Bill Haywood, Rose Scheiderman, Samuel Gompers, Harry Bridges, Sidney Hillman, Saul Alinsky, Walter Reuther, John L. Lewis, George Meany and Cesar Chavez.

There was also Jimmy Hoffa, whose mysterious disappearance in 1975 remains unsolved.

These were all notable labor leaders or activists associated with the American labor movement over the past two centuries.

Regrettably, this largely forgotten roll call of union stalwarts underscores the fact that few Americans are fully aware of the long and sometimes violent struggle of the nation’s working class to achieve the American Dream – an ideal which encompasses the reality of a decent, well-paying job with benefits, paid vacations, a comfortable standard of living and secure retirement.

Equally important, perhaps, is that sense of human dignity which is gained from engaging in meaningful and satisfying labor. We ought never to forget that according to the American value system and a powerful cultural heritage which includes the Protestant work ethic, the worth of a person in our society is largely determined by the kind of work they do.

Throughout U.S. history there has been a pronounced skepticism about the role of labor unions, and many Americans have viewed such organizations as an unwelcome presence in the workplace. In the words of writer Philip Dray, American workers soon discovered that “their country did not care much for labor unions. In no other country has organized capital so resisted organized labor.”

Because of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pro-labor New Deal reforms during the 1930s, however, the labor movement gained legitimacy. With the landmark passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, unions were granted the right of collective bargaining and protections from unfair labor practices.

Although Democratic administrations have generally supported labor since that time and adopted policy positions favorable to the interests of workers, a few highly regarded Republican presidents also sympathized with the cause of labor and championed workers’ rights.

Early in his presidency, Republican Theodore Roosevelt took significant steps on behalf of the American worker. As he wrote, “I found the eight hour law a mere farce, this I remedied by executive action.” While in office TR demanded that Congress pass factory inspection and child labor laws for the District of Columbia as well as a workman’s compensation law covering all government employees. Considering himself a progressive in the spirit of Lincoln, the GOP Roosevelt pushed for workplace regulation and other social reforms benefiting labor.

Later, in his famous Osawatamie speech of 1910, a more radicalized Teddy Roosevelt quoted Lincoln’s statement that “Labor is prior to, and independent of capital.” TR also added, “If that remark was original with me, I should even more be strongly denounced as a Communist agitator than I shall be anyhow. It is Lincoln’s. I am only quoting it.”

Over the years, those in the ranks of organized labor can take pride in being a catalytic force for the improvement of America society. Both the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations were instrumental in the labor movement’s long fight to achieve economic and social justice during the middle decades of the last century.

According to political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, “unions were on the front lines of every major economic battle … from the successful struggle for an expanded Social Security program in the 1950s to the passage of Medicare in 1965. Labor leaders also lent critical support to the civil rights movement.”

In his comprehensive history of organized labor, author Philip Dray emphasizes the movement’s “civilizing influence on politics, government policy, and corporate behavior, by forcing beneficial changes like regular factory inspections and fire safety laws.”

Indeed, as far as overall corporate behavior is concerned, after World War II organized labor was viewed as a needed countervailing force to balance and check corporate power in politics.

Christopher Hayes’s book “Twilight of the Elites” succinctly describes the Golden Age of organized labor’s impact: “From the end of the Second World War to the early 1970s, represents a period of historically unprecedented growth, mass affluence, and middle class expansion not since duplicated.”

Although organized labor in 2014 bears only faint resemblance to its former prominence, labor remains a progressive force. Various unions in the U.S. have $34 billion at their disposal. This, plus active manpower resources, have lately been deployed with significant results.

Recent, widely publicized strikes by workers at hundreds of McDonald’s and other fast food chains, some Whole Foods Markets and Market Basket food outlets in Massachusetts show evidence of a new determined militancy by employees and their community backers to bring about changes in the labor practices of these large companies.

A Whole Foods employee involved in such action remarked, “We’re not union workers. … But the reality is that the union is you deciding with your co-workers to actually join together and exert collective power against the boss. That’s what the essence of a union is.”

There are also other actions at both the state and federal level promoting working class interests.

In Washington, one goal to help workers is symbolized by the ongoing controversy over raising the minimum wage. Several Democratic proposals to increase the minimum wage from the current $7.25 to at least $10.15 an hour have been stalled in Congress by recalcitrant Republican opposition.

The August issue of Governing magazine revealed another interesting and encouraging sign that a revitalization of the labor movement is possibly imminent. Polling by both Gallup and the Pew Research Center indicate that a hefty majority of Americans younger than 30 express support for unions. These young millennials “can bring new energy to organized labor,” argues writer Alan Greenblatt, “The young hire is more liberal in politics, and they are gutsy about their opinions.”

President Clinton’s Treasury secretary, Robert Rubin, was fond of repeating the old adage that “a rising economic tide lifts all boats.” That, unfortunately, hasn’t been the case for many decades in this country. Rubin’s pet proverb was rebutted by another Clinton economic adviser with a more accurate quip about that tide lifting some boats while running others aground!

When all workers are earning their fair share – not just those at the top rungs of the income pyramid – the result is an economically healthy nation. Historically, strong unions have been a proven means of boosting everyone’s workforce earnings and creating a more equitable society.

Bruce Dudley lives in Paul Smiths and Camden, Delaware.


Bartlett, Donald L. and Steele, James B., “The Betrayal of the American Dream”

Dray, Philip, “There is Power In a Union: The Epic Story of American Labor”

Greenblatt, Alan, “How Millennials Can Make Their Mark on Unions,” July issue of Governing magazine

Hacker, Jacob S. and Pierson, Paul, “Winner-Take-All-Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class”

Hayes, Christopher, “Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy”

Kazin, Michael, “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation”

Lind, Michael, “What Lincoln Believed: The Values and Convictions of America’s Greatest President”