To remain viable, unions must return to their roots
Labor Day is now behind us, and few know how it came into being. It became a federal holiday in 1894. It was essentially a conciliatory gesture toward the American labor movement following the Pullman Strike.
Responding to reverses following the 1893 economic depression, the Pullman Palace Car Company cut by 25% the workers' already low wages. However, it did not reduce rents and other charges in Pullman, Illinois, the company town where most lived. Many workers and their families faced starvation.
A delegation of workers tried to present their grievances about low wages, poor living conditions, and 16-hour workdays to the company president, George Pullman. He refused to meet with them and, instead, ordered them fired. The delegation voted to strike and walked off the job on May 11, 1894.
Image: Pullman strike cartoon, 1894, from the Chicago Labor newspaper.
Many sympathized with them, as they were seen as common men and women tyrannized by an abusive employer and landlord. As Tennessee Ernie Ford sang, "St. Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go; I owe my soul to the company store." Because of the strike, both striking workers and the railroads lost millions of dollars.
The Pullman strike is relevant today because it shows why unions are important to workers, even as it highlights how the union movement has changed in subsequent decades. Private-sector unions have declined as, ironically, the high wages unionized workers were able to obtain caused manufacturers to send jobs overseas.
Another factor might be unionism's broadening focus from strictly labor issues to unrelated political issues that conflict with the values of many union members. As Father George E. Schultze wrote, "now open to their judgment and action are every political and social issue that the traditional 'bread and butter' unionism arguably left to the conscience and faith of individuals and their families."
In my working career, I was twice a union member. The first time was mandatory, with the Teamsters, because I worked in a closed shop. The second was voluntary, with the American Federation of Teachers, after I suffered a serious injustice without their protection.
Individual employees can seldom muster the power to protect themselves in crisis situations. Collective action remains effective in many instances. As to the latter union, Father Schultze notes, "Organized labor has amassed power in public education, government, and health care."
Unions are not the only organizations broadening their focus to unrelated social and political issues. For example, the League of Women Voters, formed in 1920 to focus on issues common to all women of the day, now uses its name and reputation to advocate for purely leftist issues, alienating half the nation's women. The same can be seen in education, where school boards across the country have extended the concept of education far beyond basic education. Many now include in their curricula values that alienate many Americans.
When unions are formed for a single purpose that unites people with diverse ideologies, political leanings, or religions (e.g., wages and working conditions), straying from that mission, they invariably suffer a decline in acceptability or membership overall. More perniciously, because this straying always leans left, when it's public-sector unions doing the straying, they invariably become partners with the Democrat party, powered by taxpayer dollars sent their way by the politicians they support.
In the past, union officers and members strongly guarded the American labor movement against communism, which they saw as a threat to their working conditions. (See, e.g., the AFL-CIO under George Meany.) Nowadays, organizations such as the AFL-CIO and the SEIU openly embrace socialism.
By taking hard-left positions on political and social issues, unions alienate workers who do not share those values. If they're in a "right to work" state, those workers abandon the unions. This is especially true in health care (abortion) and education (sexuality). (See, e.g., "The Catholic Church, American Labor Unions, and the New Left.")
If unions wish to survive, they'd do well to return to their original strength — focusing on wages and working conditions and leaving political and social issues to other organizations. After all, people must work and should be able to work safely without suffering management abuse. In those circumstances, unions do what they were always meant to do: benefit workers.