Our Perennial War-Part VI

The Gilded Age, now and then. The clothes have changed but not the attitude

Where Unions Succeeded—and Where They Failed

In my previous five posts, I wrote about the history of labor struggles from the first recorded workers’ strike in ancient Egypt to the present, and about the various methods used by the owning class to perpetuate its control. Today I want to take a brief look at labor unions—how they have helped workers and how they have fallen short.

In 1902 a guy named Vladimir Ulyanov (aka Russian revolutionary leader Lenin) published a pamphlet titled “What is To Be Done?” In it he argued that without a political party to spread revolutionary ideas, workers will be “able develop only trade-union consciousness.” This he defines as “the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labor legislation.”

In this case, Lenin makes an important point. Although unions have made impressive gains for workers, they accept the prevailing economic system and restrict themselves to working within it. In the United States, certainly, they have limited their goals to higher wages and better working conditions for their members, while excluding those they consider outside their purview.

Historically, union members’ prejudices defined that purview to consist of white males. As J. G. Cassedy documented in the National Archives, “In 1930 no more than 50,000 out of 1,500,000 black workers engaged in transportation, extraction of minerals, or manufacturing were members of any trade union. Furthermore, the AFL remained a conservative organization. A large number of member unions did not permit African Americans to join their ranks, and the AFL leadership showed little apparent interest in organizing black and white laborers in mass-production industries.”

That lack of interest in a diverse union membership began to change during the Great Depression with pressure from Black organizations, the demand for Black labor during WW II and, later, with the civil rights movement.

Even within those limitations, unions did chalk up great successes. It was a long bloody struggle to get from the late 19th Century to the mid 20th, to where a third of those employed in private industry were unionized. During that struggle workers were beaten, imprisoned, and even murdered by police and hired agents of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Yet by the 1950s unions had won an eight-hour day, the two-day weekend, a living wage, overtime pay, and benefits such as health insurance and compensation for on-the-job injuries.

The inevitable result was a massive shift in income inequality. As I pointed out in Part I of this series, in America’s Gilded Age Age (from about 1877 to 1900) four thousand wealthy families owned more than the rest of the population combined. Per French economist Thomas Piketty, in the 1910s and 1920s the wealthiest 10% received between 45% and 50% of the national income. By the 1950s, with high union membership, that figure dropped to 35% of the country’s income.

But, as Piketty’s charts show, the pendulum started swinging back in 1980. Between 2000 and 2010, the wealthiest were once again receiving 45% to 50% of the national income—this time the inevitable result of the Reagan administration’s systematic destruction of the unions. Right now, in the United States, three individuals own as much as half the population.

With the recent spate of union successes, the pendulum may be swinging in workers’ favor again—but for how long?

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