It seems appropriate to begin this Labor Day column by noting that this year is the 100th anniversary of the Seattle General Strike, which shut down the city for six days in February 1919.
My colleague Ron Judd examined the many myths and distortions about the stoppage earlier this year in The Seattle Times’ Pacific NW Magazine.
For example, the strike was labeled by some, including ambitious Mayor Ole Hanson, as an American Bolshevik revolution killed in the cradle when it collapsed after six days (the real Bolshevik revolution in Russia was not even two years old). “But most local labor leaders, part of the American Federation of Labor umbrella, were not revolutionaries, and the strike was not called to foment revolution,” Judd writes.
The General Strike remains a treasured part of local history — even the newsboys were unionized — but it’s down the list of iconic moments in American organized labor.
For example, Chicago’s 1886 series of protests and strikes for an eight-hour day devolved into bloodshed when police killed eight workers. The next day, at Haymarket Square, a bomb killed seven police officers and four civilians; four anarchists accused of involvement were later hanged.
While a short-term failure for labor organizers, what came to be known as the Haymarket Massacre bolstered support for the shorter workday, although its wide implementation was decades coming.
Another pivotal moment was the series of sit-down strikes in 1936, when workers occupied General Motors factories to protest horrific working conditions.
The action was a means for assembly workers “to be treated like a human,” striker Larry Jones told the Los Angeles Times in 1987. “It’s almost inconceivable for someone who views the conditions now to imagine what they were like then.”
GM finally agreed to bargain with the United Auto Workers over wages and working conditions for 200,000 workers. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act, passed as part of FDR’s New Deal, was essential to this success. Among other things, it recognized employees’ right to collective bargaining.
Even after the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act rolled back some union power, membership was nearly 30 percent of total U.S. employment through the 1960s. This was overwhelmingly in the private sector, and the gains of organized labor spread through the workforce. One reason: Employers wanted to keep unions out, so matched many of their benefits. (Full disclosure — I’ve been a union member and I’ve also managed in unionized newsrooms.)
Fast-forward to 2018. Only 10.5 percent of wage and salary workers were union members — and a mere 6.4 percent in the private sector. Not surprisingly, the share of national income going to labor (organized and not) is near a post-World War II low. Wage growth is weak despite a tight job market.
Nearly 21 percent of workers in Washington state were represented by unions, among the highest in the nation and due in good part to Boeing’s large unionized workforce.
According to a new report by the Washington State Labor Education and Research Center, these employees earn an average 7.2% more than nonunion workers, are 20% more likely to have employer-sponsored health care and are 37% more likely to receive retirement benefits. This union dividend meshes with research done elsewhere.
Still, organized labor is ailing, especially in the private sector, notwithstanding some gains by the Service Employees International Union and others.
The influence of labor makes for a sad rise and fall over the century after the Seattle General Strike. This despite most Americans having favorable views toward unions.
What went wrong?
Much blame has been attached to Taft-Hartley, especially its opening the spread of “right to work” laws at the state level. This allows workers in union shops to decline membership or paying dues.
But the decline has more sources. Among the many cuts was the way labor bosses and U.S. auto executives essentially colluded in letting the industry calcify in the 1960s and be unprepared for Japanese imports, as documented in David Halberstam’s book “The Reckoning.” Similar malpractice occurred in other critical manufacturing sectors.
Organized crime and corruption damaged some unions, notably the old Teamsters under Jimmy Hoffa. (After federal intervention and now led by James Hoffa Jr., that union has become much cleaner).
The composition of the American economy changed, with the decline of easy-to-unionize sectors such as heavy manufacturing and the rise of service and technology jobs, which are more resistant to organized labor.
Business executives worked hard at federal and state levels to undercut worker protections and unions. This effort, which began in earnest in the 1970s, has produced huge dividends for corporations and top executives. But gains among the nation’s income groups, which had risen together after World War II, began a sharp divergence, with only the top earners showing big increases.
Geographic shifts hurt, too. Companies moved factories from heavily unionized states in the Rust Belt to the “right-to-work” South. Other jobs were sent overseas or eliminated by technology (the robot sit-down strike has yet to happen).
And don’t forget social changes. Many working-class people who rose thanks to unions (and the New Deal) moved to suburbia and became Republicans, less inclined to favor organized labor, more inclined to react against its perceived overreaching.
This phenomenon may have been more pronounced among their boomer children, who went to college, started small businesses or became professionals. The closest they’ve come to a union hall is a Bruce Springsteen song.
This changing America was reflected in the election of union-skeptical presidents, not least Ronald Reagan. By busting the air-traffic controllers strike in 1981, Reagan and his National Labor Relations Board gave assent to similar moves in the private sector. (Reagan, ironically, was the only president to have served as head of an AFL-CIO union.)
It would be comforting to believe the pendulum will swing back. After all, history shows that all workers benefit from strong unions. Democratic presidential candidates have pitched themselves to organized labor. For example, Bernie Sanders offers a proposal to double union membership in four years. Like much else, this depends on commanding majorities in the Senate and House.
But have Americans become so polarized and atomized that they aren’t capable of the essence of unionization, solidarity?
If so, they can continue to watch society become more unequal and wonder why.