Aldo Merusi File Photo
Vermont’s history of labor unrest includes the Rutland rail strike of 1953.
The article that appeared in the Times Argus/Rutland Herald on Jan. 27, reporting on the decline of labor unions in the U.S., was a sad example of how little understood are the enormous implications of that decline.
No mention was made about how U.S. social, economic and political realities have been and will continue to be shaped by the weakening of organized labor. Increasing income disparities, lowered expectations, diminished democratic institutions and increased environmental destruction are just some of the consequences of our yoyo (you’re on your own) economy. A brief history of the impact labor unions have had in the U.S. might help to reverse this dangerous trend.
The 20th century saw the full cycle of the modern U.S. labor movement, from growth to decline, and the history is very telling. In 1900 labor unions were very weak, with laws either prohibiting organizing or making it so difficult that few efforts were successful. This, combined with the violent suppression of working people’s organizing efforts by police and private militias hired by business owners, kept in place an economic system where wealth disparities were enormous and the political system was in the hands of private capital. Sound familiar?
The Great Depression (1929-1941) began to change the balance of power as the failures of the “free market” became evident (as they have again since 2007) as workers overcame the often violent resistance of big business and formed unions throughout the manufacturing and service sectors of the economy. After World War II, these unions often went on strike to win increased wages and benefits, their fair share of a postwar U.S. economic boom.
It was understood then, as it is not understood now, that organized labor, which in the 1950s comprised 35 percent of the U.S. labor force, was the engine driving the great expansion of the economy. While other historical factors helped enable this prosperity, it was working people — whose union contracts put more money in their pockets and pressured non-unionized businesses to increase wages — who so dramatically increased economic activity in the U.S.
Higher incomes for workers resulted in a huge expansion in the production and consumption of goods and services, narrowing economic disparities. Working people could achieve homeownership; their children could hope for a college education; health statistics improved nationally; and hardworking men and women could take a few weeks of vacation and do things with their kids.
The economy was booming and, while not all boats were floating in the rising tide, the vibrant economy was able to absorb large influxes of women and people of color as these groups organized and fought for greater equality.
My personal history reflects this swing toward greater equality of opportunity that unions represent. My parents were from the Great Depression generation; my father left high school in his sophomore year, in 1933, to find work. When they married, my mother was a full-time “housewife.” My father worked in a sugar refinery along the Brooklyn docks. As a member of the International Longshoreman’s Association, he became president of Local 1476, an unpaid position that put him in the middle of such struggles as the eight-hour workday, vacation days, overtime pay, paid sick days (a benefit that a majority of non-unionized workers in Vermont still do not have) and modest health care benefits.
I might add that he also fought for equal pay for women who went into the factories during the war. These benefits were won only through hard-fought campaigns by organized labor. I was the first person in my family to go to college.
This economic expansion and associated increase in income equality benefited many people, but women and people of color were held back by personal and institutional sexism and racism — unfortunately, including many unions. Still, business leaders and their “free market” allies in government worked tirelessly to reverse the gains made.
In the 1980s this reaction picked up steam with the election of Ronald Reagan. Reaganomics meant the push back of the wealthy owners of capital and the steady erosion of labor unions. Several factors, including aggressive business anti-unionism with government and corporate media complicity, workers’ replacement by technology (which makes no demands) and economic globalization — as businesses seek the lowest wages and little environmental regulation — have brought us to this state where too many working people stand alone in the face of enormous corporate power.
As might be expected, business interests are winning. The New York Times reported Jan. 13 that “wages have fallen to a record low as a share of America’s gross domestic product (GDP).” It adds that “compensation (including health and retirement benefits) is at a 50-year low while corporate profits have climbed to their highest share over that time.”
Today, with union membership comprising 11.2 percent of the workforce, as reported in the Times Argus/Rutland Herald article, the lowest level since 1916, income and wealth gaps have grown enormously, giving the U.S. the unhappy distinction of the greatest wealth disparity of any industrialized nation on earth. U.S. workers, while being among the most productive, have among the smallest benefits packages and shortest vacation time in the industrialized world.
Families with two or more incomes are struggling to make ends meet, often having to sacrifice time with the kids to pay for rent, food, medical needs and other necessities. The thought of college for far too many kids from working and middle-class families is a distant and unlikely to be achieved hope.
In the light of this history, it’s funny that when government bails out banks and other corporations and the wealthiest 1 percent, it is described by many politicians and in much of the news media as a way to fund job creation. But when unions struggle for higher wages and a more decent living for working people who are the major consumers in the economy, that is described as “bankrupting” the American people, putting a “brake” on the economy.
History shows, as unionized workers’ incomes improve, every worker’s living standard is raised as it places greater pressure on non-union employers to increase wages to compete for the most competent employees. When labor is strong, the whole nation benefits; when it is weak, as now, the system begins to crack, the divide between Americans widens, and the vision of the common good is trampled upon.
Our failure, as a people, to know this history and to resist the growing dominance of business corporations is a central factor in the decline of our society and polity. We need a resurgence of organized labor, indeed of organized citizens in every sector of society. As has been shown so often in our history, when masses of people organize themselves for greater equality and freedom, there is no force on earth that can stop them. When workers are organized in labor unions, we all move closer to an economy and society that works for everyone.
Joseph Gainza is a resident of Marshfield.
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