Workers entering the labor force today are often unaware of the battle waged on their behalf to secure our modern work environment. The 40-hour workweek, 8-hour day, and even basic workplace safety could not just be assumed. Long before laws from the progressive era secured these rights for workers, unions were on the front lines of these battles (Dubofsky, 2000, p. 146). The collective action of workers in unions pushed employers and the government forward to implement real reforms.
While we have secured many rights to improve and enhance our modern working environment the struggle has not ended, and it may be foolhardy to assume it has. Unions today remain just as critical as they were in the early history of the US in securing worker rights. It is only through collective action of unions that workers can secure those gains and continue the struggle for more equitable working environments.
The relationship between employee and employer remains at its core confrontational, even with government protection. Labor is a key cost in the delivery of services and production of products; an increase in wages, safety or working conditions of labor directly impacts the profit of business. Every dollar spent in wages is taken from the bottom line. While this is a generalization of the complexities of business and the subtleties of the employee/employer relationship, it highlights the fundamental dichotomy inherent in the wage system of capitalism.
In “The Big Squeeze” Steve Greenhouse (Greenhouse, 2008, p. 85) provides a vivid example of this confrontation, which is still taught as a successful model in business schools. The example discusses how, in 1981 Jack Welch accepted the reigns as the chief executive of GE facing a stock price that was less than half its value of 10 years earlier. Jack wasted no time to remedy this falling stock price by cutting 25% of the workforce over the next 6 years. Over 130,000 jobs were sacrificed at the altar of stock price and shareholder value. Little regard was given to the real cost paid by these workers to increase the company value from $13 billion in 1981 to $500 billion when Jack Welch retired in 2001.
In 1999 I accepted a position with the Appliance division at GE in Louisville, KY. While Jack did not retire for another three years the remnants of his war on labor remained. Appliance Park was a sprawling complex with its own zip code, fire station, and police force, or rather it was. At the point I started it was all ready just a reflection of its former glory;large sprawling buildings that formerly produced union made and well-known kitchen appliances were now silent shells and showing the wear of their age and lack of attention and use. The effect on the laid off workers, their families and the local communities was devastating.
These stories tear at the heartstrings but have been told. Less told is the lingering side effect felt by the employees that remained, whether union members or not. An atmosphere of cutthroat business practices was not limited to executive leadership, but rather it permeated the whole company down to the smallest departments. The GE system was clear; each employee fit into three distinct categories of top, middle, or bottom and each was treated accordingly. The top 10% were showered with benefits from wage increases, stock options, and large bonuses. The middle 80% had limited wage increases, no bonus or stock options and clearly told there would be no advancement. For the bottom 10% the message was made was made very clearly: improve or your career with GE was over. This, of course, assumed opportunity to improve was given and you were not just shown the door.
Workers were divided and feared losing their jobs. With no sense of a common struggle fellow employees were seen as competition to be conquered. The monuments of decay throughout the park reminded workers of what happens even if successfully organized. Little hope remained that a more equitable or cooperative was possible
As GE in the 1980s defined the prototype for outsourcing US manufacturing jobs, Walmart was reaching $1 billion in annual sales by selling cheap imported products to American consumers (“Experience Walmart’s History”). Built on Sam Walton’s foundation of “The Lowest Prices Anytime, Anywhere” Walmart started in 1980 with 276 stores and 21,000 associates and by 2012 grew to employ “2.2 million associates worldwide and serve 200 million customers each week at more than 10,000 stores in 27 countries”.
This retail behemoth accounted for 2.6 percent of the US gross domestic product in 2008 (Greenhouse, 2008, p. 136). Its competition dwarfed as Walmart exceeded their combined annual sales. This dominance in the industry gave them unprecedented control, from manufacturing to supply chain and finally the job market. This well-oiled machine from factory to consumer reduces the cost of production to the bare minimum but disregards the human cost on its associates, customers, and communities. The Walmart employee is merely an interchangeable part in this distribution system. With this insurmountable competition and low prices they have pushed down wages in every community Walmart has entered. Our outsourced manufacturing jobs have been replaced with low wage, limited benefits and long hour retail positions selling low cost, low quality products.
The control of every aspect of the process has set unrealistic expectations on Walmart associates and management alike. While the corporate office writes policies against violating employee rights, they are accompanied with sales goals and financial goals for stores, which are impossible to reach without forcing workers to work off the clock or locking whole teams in stores over night. Tactics such as locking in staff over night not only jeopardizes safety but also steals wages as well often keeping them locked in the store long past working hours (Greenhouse, 2008, p. 50).
Steve Greenhouse interviewed a night crew leader that would be locked in overnight at a Sams Club, the wholesale stores owned by Walmart. Management was direct explaining that opening the emergency door would result in immediate termination (Greenhouse, 2008, p. 50). Even in life threatening situations the night crew was forced to wait until the manager arrived in the morning. Many jobs are known to be dangerous, stocking shelves, unloading trucks, and cleaning the store should not be. The confrontational nature of the employee - employer relationship is pushed to the breaking point, moving the cost of reaching store goals from the company to the labor force. This wage theft is not isolated to Walmart and has become widespread in the current weak economy (Ness, Dollars & Sense (Organization), & Economic Affairs Bureau, 2011a, p. 39).
It is not required how to be locked in to have wages stolen. Store managers under intense pressure to reach profit goals will coerce or intimidate associates to complete work off the clock. After clocking out managers will demand a task be completed before the associate is allowed to leave but without being allowed to clock back in. This may seem minor but it can quickly add up, stealing wages rightfully earned by the employee from the employee in order for the business to increase profit at their employees’ loss. . The Economic Policy Foundation estimate that $19 billion in overtime is stolen from employees by companies annually (Ness, Dollars & Sense (Organization), & Economic Affairs Bureau, 2011a, p. 38).
The example from both Walmart and GE gives a glimpse into the stress being placed on the employee. These violations however are not limited to just these two companies and have become common practice today. An employee is left feeling insignificant and intimidated against these faceless corporate powerhouses. A modern day David and Goliath image is conjured up, but the individual employee playing the part of David has no form of defense to stand against these giants. They are left to accept their state of high stress, low wage jobs with declining benefits or no job at all.
Unions are not a perfect solution and must adapt to the modern condition of employment that labor is subjected to. History has provided no better model for organizing workers than unions and demonstrated their potential strength. It is only through a common, united front and bonds of solidarity that labor can secure the gains already made and continue to move the future progress of labor forward. The individual is dwarfed by the power and size of these employers. No other solution can bond workers with the solidarity of a common struggle and their aspirations for a democratic and equitable workplace.
In the AFL-CIO Six Points Jobs Plan the first point calls out the issue of education (http://bit.ly/X1B5fh). The criticality of education cannot be understated in its importance. Certainly not every person will want or even pursue an extended education but it has been recognized for decades that a basic education is needed to maintain and grow a stable economy. It’s very telling that the AFL-CIO jobs plan bundles education with the rebuilding of the US transportation and energy systems, together they are a foundation for growth and without a strong foundation we will build a weak recovery and economy.
We’ve heard the story several times that the US is falling behind in comparison to other nations of the world in educating children. What was once a key strength is quickly becoming a weakness inhibiting progress. In a recent TED video Andreas Schleicher shared results from International Assessment testing that highlighting the growing gap of US education and the world (http://bit.ly/VRLmfv). Improvements are being made around the world in education while the US squabbles with attempts to lay blame on the teacher unions.
Education is critical for our long-term success but it does not solve the immediate issue of high unemployment rates through out the country. More direct approaches must be taken with investment in and the rebuilding of our failing infrastructure. Roads, bridges, high-speed rail, high speed Internet are just a few examples of investments that could be made in our local communities. In our modern world the country needs to improve it’s communication and transportation infrastructure to stay competitive. These facets of our modern societies were built with the collective action and now again in our modern day we need collective investment to secure our future.
We’ve heard discussions of putting people back to work in politics with little to no action. This rhetoric often portrays the unemployed as making a choice not to work, that jobs are available but Americans are unwilling to do the hard work. These disparaging comments are not just baseless but hurtful and deaf to the difficulties facing individuals and families. It also ignores the fundamental problem of our economy and the falling demand. Even workers with jobs have lost buying power and discretionary income over the last several decades.
To add jobs, we need to increase demand for product and services. This is where the collective action of government becomes so very important to the recovery of jobs and our economy. With direct investments and short-term deficit spending we can increase demand. As stated by economists Robert Reich the economy has doubled in size, but with inflation adjustments wages have barely increased with workers taking home less and that growth being redirected to the top (http://bit.ly/X1Baj9). We cannot expect the public to spend money they simply do not have.
In spite of a growing interest in workers to form a union we have seen a decline in union membership over the last two decades. In polls from 2004 “more than half of non-union workers would have” defiantly or probably voted for a union (Dollar & Sense, a1.6, p25). Up from just a third of workers in 1984. This decline in unionization is not from a lack of interest but rather the resulting power gained by employers in labor laws and loss of worker protections and enforcement.
The constant barrage in the news media about the burden of regulation on industry does not to extend to workers forming a union. Just having a majority of workers sign up is often not enough to gain union representation. Employers have several options in law to delay the formation of a union decreeing the chance of success. Right from the beginning employers can contest the union and require a secret ballot election held by the National Labor Relation Board (a1.3, p8). The employer can also dispute the membership of the proposed bargaining-unit to include workers unfriendly or uninterested in a union. Essentially stacking the vote to ensure union loss in the election. With various manipulations of the law the employer can drag out the process sapping solidarity and motivation from the workers.
These onerous requirements on union formation increase the need for strong organizing but the workers find their hands tied again. Non-employee organizers from the union are prevented from campaigning on the work site while the employer can require anti-union meetings. Either in a group or one-on-one, these meetings can be very intimidating to the employee. There are regulations against threats and retaliation against pro-union employees but these are rarely enforced or may take years to resolve. As stated by Alenjandro Reuss in Dollar & Sense “the federal government has often turned a blind eye to illegal tactics” (a1.7 p25).
These burdens added to the employee coupled with a weak economy and high unemployment leaves workers with little protection in the workplace. The employers are clear in their opinion that workers should feel “lucky to have a job” (a1.7, p21).
Ness, I. (2011). Real world labor: a reader in economics, politics and social policy from Dollars & Sense (2nd ed.). Boston, Mass.: Economic Affairs Bureau.
Workers on the sugar cane plantations of Hawaii in the late 19th century were a diverse group of Asian immigrants. This diversity initially created natural divisions by home countries, Japanese immigrants living together, Chinese living together and so on. Providing comfort and security to the working immigrants in a new land so far away from their families and homeland.
The planters used this diversity against the workers by pitting one group against another. Claims that the Japanese were faster to a group of Filipino used as a form of motivation. From housing to pay, the group’s differences real or imagined were highlighted and amplified. All while pushing an ideology of white racial superiority. Ethnic groups were positioned in the camps and their work on a pyramid hierarchy with the white owners and luanas at the top.
This ethnic division acted as a barrier to true solidarity of workers in a common circumstances and position. Even the unions being created cut across these imaginary ethnic lines. These divisions maintained power squarely in the hands of the employer. If one group attempted to strike they would be replaced with another ethnic group. While the Japanese union had some gain, true progress would not come until workers become aware of their interethnic working class unity. Finally forming a single union ‘Hawaii Laborers’ Association.
New unionism - Industrial unionism - Formation of the AFL - Samuel Gomper
As the knights of Labor’s power was shrinking in the late 19th century craft unions stepped in to fill the power void and leadership of the Labor movement. Samuel Gompers was a critical leader in this “new unionism” movement. He brought a practical and pragmatic philosophy of reinvigorating the craft and trade unions of old with some minor differences. Gompers and his predecessors looked to build this movement with sound business practices to provide the financial stability a long term organization required.
The focus of these new unions downplayed the utopian ideas and views of early 19th century industrial unions —such as abolition of the wage system—. In contrast they worked for more immediate and winnable gains for the working class with in the Industrial system. Work stoppage or strikes were still in use, but only after exhausting attempts to work with employers for resolution and a strong probability of winning. They wanted to build an organization for the workers that could equal the equal the employers.
In 1886 the new more pragmatic unions formed the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Formed from a handful of representatives of the defunct Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions and a collection of other large trade unions. This new organizations primary focus would be on the interest of the trades they represented and it’s skilled workers. It’s narrow focus limited the workers who were represented to skilled white males. Even with exceptions of mine workers a large portion of the working class was left out in new unionism.
The focus of the AFL on trade unions excluded the industrial unions with few exceptions. Coupled with the fall of the Knights of Labor, the economically vulnerable were left with no national representation and little protection giving greater control to the employer over their working conditions. While all unskilled workers were excluded, immigrants, women, children, and minorities were disproportionately impacted. This loss of a national organization and exclusion from new unionism did not prevent these groups from organizing on local levels.
In the post Civil War reconstruction south, African American workers were organizing to fight for livable wages. Black female domestic workers acted in an opportune time of political power shifts and the economic boom to gain and secure their voice both at work and politically. While some details are lost to history we can assume they were successful by the extreme push back and passing of Jim Crow laws codifying segregation and cementing black americans as second class citizens. The not very subtle discrimination of “separate but equal” would remain until the Civil rights act of 1964.
The story of the locked in employees in The Big Squeeze was extremely troubling. It provided a vivid example for the disregard and complete lack of respect and trust for the worker. The employee treated as commodity to be used up and tossed away when finished..
In trying to picture what I would do I was taken back to the birth of my second child. While healthy and happy now, she born with health issues. On several occasions I would get a call that something was wrong. I’d let my manager know and rush out the door to get to the hospital. It was a stressful time to say the least and I was very fortunate to work for someone who cared not just about the work I did, but also for me and my family.
To be locked in and getting a phone call that my daughter was in the hospital and I could do nothing about it would have killed me inside. My options would be to stay worried and unable to concentrate or lose my job for opening a door to be by my daughters side in the hospital. I can’t know exactly what I would do, but the unfortunate answer would probably be to stay to keep my job. Like most of America, I depend on my employer to provide some sort of healthcare, losing my job and therefore insurance coverage would endanger my daughter more.
The story was about a physical lock in, but I also see a parallel to the often touted benefits provided by an employer. Having children made me keenly aware of the dependency I had to my employer. A job loss is not just a loss of income, but everything else we depend on to secure our lives. From health insurance, life insurance, disability insurance and more. Our safety net is dependent on our employer, we are exposed and subject to their whims. If you can’t leave an employer for a better position or open a business simply because of health care, that is not freedom and a virtual form being locked in and trapped.
For your reading pleasure - The Big Squeeze by Steven Greenhouse
Progression to Industrial capitalism brought both benefits and great struggle to society. The efficiency of industrialization reduced the cost of production while allowing a dramatic increase in capacity to produce consumables. The skilled class of workers were being replaced with technology and unskilled labor to operate the new machines with smaller wages. Without the strength of skilled labor solidarity the employer gained more power and control over the workplace and working conditions of labor.
The poor working conditions workers were subjected to, and the loss of control over their lives drove them together under a common struggle. From this, rose the Knights of Labor. Originally founded by tailors in the garment industry in 1869 as a secret organization with a noble purpose to abolish the wage system. KOL began with claims of an open and inclusive union for skilled, unskilled, women, minorities and all who toil. It’s intention to be One Big Union inclusive of all workers. With only obvious exclusion of groups that did not produce with their labor —sweat—, such as bankers, stockbrokers, and the like. As a secret organization it grew slowly and often lived up to claims of inclusiveness. However a darker racism would be exposed against minorities and immigrants with the most vile directed at Chinese immigrant workers.
Born from industrialization the ideology of Producerism was a simple belief that “Labor creates all wealth” that empowered the KOL. It was a strong critique of the accumulated wealth of the rich (capitalist) and was reinforced with the Republican virtue of independence. These benign concepts also facilitated a platform for discrimination of immigrants, poor, and minorities. Both the wealthy and the lower classes were driven further apart by what Henry George described as a wedge in culture. Producerism saw the top and bottom of this wedge as parasites on society. The new middle class, and the working class made up the actual wedge.
With slow but significant growth and concern from the Catholic pope of a secret organization, the KOL pulled back it’s curtain and removed the oaths of secrecy originally required for membership. From early success of railroad walkouts and strikes of 1883 and 1885 the KOL membership began to grow rapidly adding over 600,000 to reach 700,000 members in 1886. The small union however was not prepared for the growth and quickly became difficult to control for it’s leadership. While the organization aspired for long term elimination of wage slavery, it’s member were anxious for more immediate wins such as higher wages, eight hour workdays, and weekends. This rate of growth, the inherent contradiction between leadership and members, and violence toward chinese immigrants would ultimately be the downfall of the Knight of Labor. As quickly as it rose to power, it fell just as fast after a number of strike failures and concessions. KOL leadership struggled with it’s purpose and conflicted with it’s membership on purpose.
Even with it’s ultimate failure, the Knights of Labor did have a profound effect on the union movement. Providing lessons for all those who came after. From it’s success in the early railroad strikes with a powerful show of solidarity from workers, to later strike failures which were often started without the approval of leadership.
Dramatic changes happening in the 19th century made class identity confusing and a bit complicated. Late 19th century Industrialization provided for a new identity of a middle class, in effect dividing the workers. Professionals, Entrepreneurs, and the new identity of white collar workers saw tremendous gain in quality of life while leaving behind the toilers, workers who produced with the sweat of their labor.
While far from wealthy this new middle class clung to their position of respect by setting themselves apart from the ‘working class’ with the outward appearance of cleanliness. Hence the white collar referring to the removable white collars of their shirt which could be replaced daily.
This division inhibited a solidarity across the producing class. Pitting skilled and unskilled workers against each other and in turn weakening their combined potential power. Seeking a cause for their struggle would be displayed in discrimination of immigrant and often minority workers. Particularly vile against Chinese labor coming into America for work building the transcontinental railroads. The height of this discrimination was seen in the Rocksprings Massacre. A KOL local killed or wounded 43 Chinese workers and drove the rest out by burning down their homes.
An ideology of 18th & 19th century with the core belief that Labor creates all wealth. This belief sounded noble, and did provide a strong critique of accumulated wealth. When translated to action, however, it was riddled with contradictions. The rich were portrayed as parasites on the backs of the working class; Immigrants, minorities, and the poor were also parasites stealing tax money and blamed for all of societies ills. Henry George described this in his critique as driving a wedge in cultural pushing the wealthy and the most vulnerable further apart.
This wedge in culture prevented true solidarity and entrenched racism into the movement.
I can’t discuss ‘Memoirs of a Wobbly’ without drawing attention to the amazing life of the author Henry E. McGuckin. From nature or nurture he was a fierce advocate for critical thinking, fairness, & justice. From a young age Henry was able to take inventory of his world and question what many—myself included at that age—accept as just the way it is. He was never satisfied to accept his place in the world. Instead Henry seeked to mold the world around himself and his values. At only 18 years old Henry had no fear of jail, volunteering to do what was needed for the Labor Movement. This was such a powerful message that I have encouraged my older kids to read the book.
He said, “You know you might not only be thrown into jail? You could be beaten up.”
I said, “I’ll take my chances with the rest of them”
I’ve been fortunate to not spend any time in jail. Was once thrown out of an ER waiting room but I don’t think that counts. Fear of prison has certainly kept me on the road well traveled. These men and women had no such fear, they knew what they were fighting for. It could be said that they had nothing to lose. When your whole life is controlled by the whistle of the mills to wake, eat, and sleep, as described of Paterson, your life is not your own but just another cog in the machine. Once used up, you are tossed away.
“On the Scrap Heap”
Such as when Henry meet the old man left to die after spending his life sacrificing his body and soul to the altar of progress provides a vivid sample of life for the rank-and-file of the time. At 60 with arthritis he was unable to move his hands, unable to work, no home and no place to go. He was turned away from the ‘charities’ supposedly there to help, he was simply tossed aside to die alone and cold. A civil society does not allow this to happen.
Beaten by law enforcement often for only talking on the street corner, the workers first had to fight just to be able to tell their stories. A literal fight to exercise their free speech right. The fear of an idea was so great for the establishment they knew it had to be suppressed quickly. For the lives of many of that generation it must have seemed that the establishment had won. Their stories however remain with us. Organizers would play cat and mouse with the police in order to have theirs meetings; starting a meeting on one corner to draw the cops while an organizer down the street would start another. Police Officers beating or dragging away the speaker would then hurry to the next corner with another crowd and another speaker on a soap box.
Certainly the workers of the late 18th / early 19th century had struggles that lack comparison to our modern First World problems. It was their sacrifice that provides our generally safe working environments and politicians that at least pay lip service to labor. That struggle and sacrifice however continues in our Third World countries still. Workers fighting for basic rights, human dignity, and a voice. Those workers still live in the realities that existed in 1911 America.
“Global outsourcing has allowed retailers like Gap and Walmart to turn back the clock to 1911, recreating in places like Bangladesh the brutal conditions and rock-bottom production costs that prevailed in the U.S. at the time of the Triangle fire,” - CorpWatch
For your reading enjoyment, you can find the book here “Memoirs of a Wobbly” by Henry McGuckin