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Capital and Labor in the 21st Century: The End of History

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt of From Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism, edited by Rosemary Feurer and Chad Pearson. Copyright 2017 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.  

Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, the contours of neoliberalism took shape, as individual corporations implemented new strategies seeking to shift the frontier of control in their favor and increase their profits. Their actions began to shape the political and economic practices of both major political parties, and the orientation of capitalists as a class towards their workers and their workers’ unions. This included free trade; deregulation; privatization; a new centrality of financial instruments and transactions; the commodification of services and goods which had formerly been available on the basis of citizenship or community membership; the combination of privatization and commodification to facilitate a new round of capital accumulation; the reduction of labor costs, including benefits; the reduction of the social wage and the provision of services. Not surprisingly, the pursuit of these practices challenged unions, undercut workers’ economic status and security, and fueled inequality.1

Over these two decades, these shifts in corporate strategy, with the assistance of the state, turned the unionized segment of the private sector workforce into a shrinking island within the workforce as a whole. This journey was marked by dramatic yard posts: IBP, Hormel, the Detroit newspapers, BE&K, International Paper, the Chicago Tribune, Staley, Caterpillar. Each signaled a further shift in the frontier of control, a further weakening of union power, a further decline in working class economic security and living standards.2 

After three decades of regaining their power in their relationships with private sector workers and their unions, capitalists turned their attention to public employees. And, as they gained ground in the public sector and shifted the frontier of control in their favor, they renewed their attack on private sector unions, even dusting off the shibboleth of right-to-work laws. Neoliberalism’s displacement of Keynesianism and the “social contract,” secured by the late 1980s, had shifted the political and ideological terrain to the right by the birth of the 21st century. This shift had sunken such deep roots that not only had both political parties accommodated to neoliberalism’s principles, but that the crisis of 2007–2008 did not shake their hegemony. Calls for a “new New Deal” found little echo, especially in Washington, D.C., and in state houses across the country, even as the country elected its first African American president. Grassroots protests—the Madison Uprising, Occupy Wall Street, the anti-eviction movement, and, later, Black Lives Matter—show that ideological hegemony has not yet been completely secured, but electoral politics have remained the playground of the capitalists, from the Koch Brothers’ American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to the corporate donors given a free hand by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. 

The Republican Party at the state level has been the primary implementer of the capitalists’ strategy to shift the frontier of control in broad class terms, from the shop floor to the White House. They now control a majority of state legislatures and governors’ chairs. The remaining power of unions in both the private and public sectors is squarely in their crosshairs. Where 30 percent of the private sector workforce was once unionized, barely seven percent hold union cards today. With this decline in density has come a decline in economic power, from the workplace to the bargaining table, and a similar decline in political influence, even among labor’s former “allies” in the Democratic Party. More than a century ago, Samuel Gompers laid out a political strategy for organized labor: “Punish our enemies and reward our friends.” At present, not only is it difficult to identify “friends,” bur labor seems to have little clout with which to punish “enemies.” 

The capitalists’ offensive has unfolded on a state-by-state basis, even though organized at a national level, a reminder that capitalists and their political allies still take the local and the national as well as the global context of their power seriously. Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker led the way in January 2011, when he introduced his “budget repair” bill, stripping public employee unions of the right to collective bargaining over wages and benefits, requiring them to collect dues member-by-member, and ordering them to hold an annual election to renew their diminished legal status. In Indiana, Governor Mitch Daniels, who had used his executive powers in 2005 to take away collective bargaining rights for public employees, called for bills to cut teachers’ wages and benefits and reduce public employees’ rights even further. In Ohio, John Kasich, whose resume includes stints in the U.S. House of Representatives and as a Fox News broadcaster, promised to “break the back of labor unions in the public schools” and introduced Bill SB 5, which took collective bargaining rights away from teachers, firefighters, and other public employees, proscribed strikes, and gave state bureaucrats the right to mandate terms of employment. The Michigan legislature handed new Governor Rick Snyder the power to declare any municipality in default and appoint a fiscal receiver, who could nullify union contracts, cut wages and benefits, and contract out work. 

Measures of all sorts—to require unions to gain members’ permission to spend dues money on political activities, to eliminate automatic dues collection or agency fees, to deny college professors at public universities and colleges the right to unionize, to hamstring home healthcare and day care workers seeking to organize—were introduced, trumpeted, and, in some cases, passed. In California and New York, Democratic Governors Jerry Brown and Andrew Cuomo, who had been elected with the support of organized labor, announced their intent to cut state employees’ wages, benefits, and numbers. In Maine, Governor Paul LePage, elected with 37 percent of the vote in a three-way race in November 2010, introduced bills to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights and to make the state a “right-to-work” state. In what became a national cause celebre for artists as well as trade unionists, LePage ordered a labor history mural on the walls of the State Department of Labor taken down. Midway through 2011, the National Conference of State Legislatures announced that it was tracking 744 bills that targeted public sector unions. 

While these attacks have drawn sustenance from the macroeconomy’s shift to neoliberalism, they have deep historical roots. Historians of labor law and the labor movement, including contributors to this volume, have demonstrated that as soon as the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the National Labor Relations Act in 1937, corporate interests and their political representatives went to work to limit the rights this law extended to workers and unions. They pressured executive branch agencies to restrain their enforcement efforts, filed suits in courts to block specific union campaigns, promoted antiunion images in media and popular culture, negotiated contracts which limited the terrain for union voice and inscribed management rights, and lobbied for state and federal legislation that might limit the impact of the NLRA. They were able to tap into deep values and assumptions in American labor law, prioritizing management’s right to manage and the continuity of production as being in the public interest. Organized by the National Association of Manufacturers, the Chamber of Commerce, various state Employers’ Associations, and, of course, in some states and cities, the Republican Party, these corporate interests sought the introduction of mandatory cooling off periods and mediations, fact-finding boards, prohibitions on industry-wide bargaining, limits on the right to strike, boycott, and picket, and the proscription of “unfair labor practices” on the part of workers and unions.3 

Many of these employers’ goals would be incorporated into the Taft-Hartley Act, itself a series of critical amendments to the 1935 NLRA, passed by Congress over President Truman’s veto in 1947. This was the first step by capitalists, after the labor upsurge of the late 1930s and World War II, to pull the frontier of control back in their favor. The new law empowered the president to intervene in a strike and order a cooling-off period. It redefined an “employee” who could seek union representation so as to exclude independent contractors, foremen, and supervisors, while management was redefined as “any person acting as an agent of any employer” rather than “any person acting in the interest of an employer,” thereby excluding the Chamber of Commerce, vigilante groups, and other voluntary organizations from the purview of the act. Employers’ speeches to workers on company time were granted protection as “free speech.” Taft-Hartley prohibited sympathy strikes and secondary boycotts, the two major expressions of solidarity within the labor movement. It required union officers to sign an affidavit that they did not belong to the Communist Party or any organization which advocated the overthrow of the government “by force or violence.” It also bureaucratically separated the NLRB’s General Counsel from its politically divided board, making him/her directly accountable to the sitting president and his labor agenda. In its Section 14(b) the law banned closed shops and allowed state governments to pass laws which would weaken “union security.” Misleadingly called “right-to-work” by their advocates, these laws protected the rights of individual workers to refuse to join a union and pay dues, even in a unionized facility with a collectively bargained contract.4 

The “right-to-work” component of Taft Hartley was central to the ideological battle that would be waged over workers’ rights and unionism. Most of the discourse in support of Section 14(b) revolved around the advocacy of “voluntary” unionism in contrast to “compulsory” unionism. While many employers were on record as proponents of the law, ministers, academics, journalists, and politicians were its most visible advocates. They urged states to protect the rights of individual workers who, “out of conscience,” did not wish to join unions. Twelve states, mostly in the South, passed laws in short order, and within a decade (at the height of the McCarthy period) they were joined by another seven. Only a handful of states (there is a total of twenty-two now) would be added to their ranks in the half century since. The “right-to-work” states—Southern, Southwestern, and Midwestern—share important characteristics beyond geography. Agriculture is a significant share of their economy, manufacturing a minor share. Their working class, in the 1940s and 1950s, included a large disenfranchised segment. Their popular and political cultures featured generally conservative views on race, class, gender, and the role of government. This discourse about the rights of individual workers quickly became interwoven with narratives of “labor monopoly,” “labor trust,” and “Big Labor.”5

For the first two decades after Taft-Hartley’s passage, not only were corporate interests in “right-to-work” states well-served by the mobilization of this ideological dimension of Section 14(b) to delegitimize unions, but the creation of these zones pressured workers in other states to hold down their demands under threat of corporate relocation. The location of these “right-to-work” states underpinned a regional focus in federal government defense and highway spending that encouraged a population shift (and consequent shift in political power) to “the sunbelt.” “Right-to-work” laws weakened existing unions and helped to suppress the level of unionization in the states which adopted its principles. Workers were screened for pro-union sentiments and experiences at hiring, while existing unions had more difficulty collecting dues and thereby sustaining themselves. The results have not been insignificant. A recent study notes that unionization rates in “right-to-work” states are 7.6 percent in contrast to 18.6 percent in non-“right-to-work” states, while all forms of compensation—wages, employer-sponsored health insurance and pensions—are markedly lower in “right-to-work” states. An October 2011 article on Bloomberg.com provides data suggesting that while “right-to-work” might lure jobs to particular states, these jobs have had a downward pressure on wages, thereby exacerbating poverty.6 

Corporate behavior in “right-to-work” states in the 1950s and 1960s has provided a template for capitalists’ standard operating procedures nationwide in the 21st century. Employers mobilized the image of “compulsory” unionism in order to undermine many union activities. When employers were confronted by a strike, they went to court to challenge picketing as “coercive.” They supported nonunion employees in law suits against union pressures. They went into courts to challenge unions’ quest for recognition as “exclusive” representatives of workers, which led them to delay, defer, and undermine collective bargaining itself. 

In the aftermath of the labor upsurge of the late 1930s and World War II era, years of strategic networking, institution-building, and message shaping work has moved conservative ideological arguments to the center of U.S. society. Funding think tanks and academic programs, buying media outlets, and carefully cultivating state legislators has paid off. Ideas which were once dismissed as “fringe”—that individuals can provide fully for their own retirement, that individual workers can negotiate their own employment bargains with corporate employers, that markets fairly allocate such resources as healthcare and education—have met the new world order of neoliberalism and taken root; despite the Great Recession of 2008, this ideology has remained entrenched. The neoliberal agenda of free markets, deregulation, privatization, anti-unionism, shredding the safety net, and eliminating government services has deep roots and new legitimacy, currency, and power.7 

As the essays in this volume have demonstrated, the capitalists have had to work hard to accomplish this ideological triumph, because their agenda has often been resisted, sometimes successfully, by workers and their unions.8 Identifying this resistance is an important contribution of this book; it is an important element of the present scene, and it could well shape the future. “Right-to-work” did not spread beyond its initial beachhead because of the resistance it faced. In 1955, at the height of McCarthyism, RTW measures were on the ballot in six states. It passed only in one, Kansas. In 1958, when conservative forces pushed RTW in Ohio, thousands of rank-and-file workers distributed literature, organized debates, voted contributions to the labor coalition leading the “anti” campaign. They reached out to the unemployed, who were being appealed to by the “pro” forces. They went to farmers and explained how agricultural income is dependent on the standard of living won by organized labor and they went to African Americans and explained that the same forces promoting “right-to-work” were opposing fair employment practices. The final vote against “right-to-work” was 2,007,291 to 1,080,266.9 

In Missouri in 1978, early polls gave pro-RTW forces a 2-to-1 majority, and the mainstream labor leadership seemed resigned to their fate. But activists launched a member-oriented campaign which depended on small donations raised at meetings at which rank-and-filers learned about what was at stake and were encouraged to become registered voters. Activists used phone banks and direct mail to pressure the media to tell their side of the story. They organized public debates in which rank-and-file workers presented the “labor” position. They also built a coalition, the United Labor Committee, which linked activists from non-AFL-CIO unions like the UAW, Mine Workers, and the Teamsters with those whose unions were affiliated. The ULC also reached out to farmers, arguing, as in Ohio twenty years earlier, that farmers’ prosperity depended on workers’ purchasing power. In November the “no” vote took 60 percent while the 1.6 million ballots cast set an off-year election record. Not only did they defeat RTW, noted activist Jerry Tucker, who chaired the United Labor Committee, but “new member organizing spiked upward for several years afterward.”10 

We have also seen impressive resistance to the capitalist agenda from public sector workers and unions. The public sector—now more than 26 percent organized around the country—has always manifested key elements of a “right-to-work” environment, from the right of workers to pay “agency fees” rather than full dues to significant restrictions on the right to strike, even after many states granted collective bargaining rights to public employees. Public employees—teachers, social workers, firefighters, natural resource specialists, highway workers, etc.—have been able to organize, win a voice in the workplace as well as improved wages and benefits, and have been able to maintain their organizations. When Governor Walker’s law passed the Wisconsin legislature, the faculty at seven branch campuses of the University of Wisconsin system voted, campus by campus, in favor of union representation! In the summer of 2012, 44,000 Transportation Security Administration workers, scattered at airports all across the country, voted overwhelmingly to unionize. Public employees can teach private sector workers that RTW need not spell the end of their ability to organize themselves and act collectively. 

Early in the unfolding of the Wisconsin struggle, Fox News crowed: “Wisconsin Union Battle Could Set Stage for National ‘Right-to-Work’ Debate.” The upheaval in Madison suggests the kind of broad-based, creative, democratic movement that can be mobilized when conservative forces and corporate interests set about taking away workers’ rights. Tens of thousands of protesters from across the state and across the country came to the state capitol, experienced the power of solidarity, and challenged the power and agenda of the advocates of neoliberalism, those who would cut services, cut wages and benefits, weaken public institutions (“the commons”), and push workers into a “race to the bottom.” While it was public employees who were in the neoliberals’ crosshairs, private sector union members, nonunion workers, retirees, students, welfare recipients, immigrant rights activists, peace and justice activists, and thousands more rallied to the cause.11 

Similar coalitions came together in Ohio and Michigan in response to antiunion attacks, while elements of such coalitions appeared in many states on April 4, 2011, when state AFL-CIO leaderships, the Communication Workers of America (which includes both private and public sector workers among its members), and the NAACP called for marches to mark the anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, assassinated while supporting a public sector workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968. Labor Notes magazine has sponsored a series of well-attended “Troublemakers’ Schools” from New York and Los Angeles to Chicago, Minnesota, and beyond. Verizon strikers in the summer of 2011 were greeted with public support which surprised even their union leadership, while longshoremen in the Pacific Northwest galvanized public attention with dramatic direct actions against the contracting out of union work. The NAACP’s “Moral Mondays” campaign, which began in North Carolina and has spread from Georgia to Wisconsin, has linked civil rights with labor rights, interjected nonviolent civil disobedience tactics, and infused a new energy into the movements against the capitalist agenda. 

Far from taking lightly Republican threats to push “right-to-work,” or being demoralized by Democratic willingness to countenance and accommodate other limitations on workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively, labor activists in the second decade of the 21st century might well find fighting these challenges provides a rallying cry for a broad-based campaign around a rights discourse, a discourse that resonates with a wide audience of working and middle class women and men who are struggling not only to understand the causes of the Great Recession and find their way out of it, but also to root out deeper inequities along racial, gender, national, and class lines, inequities which have shaped the American experience since its origins. From the shop floor to the modern office, from the grievance hearing to the bargaining table, from knocking on doors to circulating petitions, and from Black Lives Matter to $15 NOW, working people continue to confront the values and practices which have informed the antiunion cause in the United States. 

Endnotes

  1. Noble, Force of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation.
  2. See Rachleff, Hard-Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement. Ashby and Hawking, Staley: The Fight for a New American Labor Movement.
  3. See Cronon, “Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere?”; Alternet, “The Kochs vs. Mainstreet: The Right Wing Billionaires’ Open War on Everyday Americans”; Drum, “What the Union Fight Is Really About: Defunding the Left”; Kutler, “Who Says It’s Not about Destroying Unions?”; Fisher, “Supreme Court OKs Election Spending by Corporations.” 
  4. See Simon, “Anti-Union Push Gains Steam Nationwide”; Palermo, “Right to Work Bill Plays Big”; LoBianco, “Union Members Fight Indiana ‘Right-to-Work’ Proposal.”
  5. See Tomlins, The State and the Unions: Labor Relations, Law, and the Organized Labor Movement in America, 1880–1960; Atleson, Values and Assumptions in American Labor Law; Atleson, Labor and the Wartime State: Labor Relations and the Law during World War II Millikan, A Union against Unions: The Minneapolis Citizens Alliance and Its Fight against Organized Labor; Dannin and Hodges, “Why the National Labor Relations Act Is a Weak Law Today—And How We Can Restore Its Power”; Lichtenstein, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor. Historians have speculated that Truman secretly supported the passage of the law, knowing that his veto would be overturned. See Sexton, The War on Labor and the Left; Burns, Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America; and Brinker, “The Taft-Hartley Act in Operation.”
  6. See Slichter, “The Taft-Hartley Act”; Keller, The Case for Right-to-Work Laws: A Defense of Voluntary Unionism; Kromm, “The Racist Roots of ‘Right-to-Work’ Laws”; Yeselson, “Fortress Unionism.”
  7. See Lichtenstein, “The Long History of Labor Bashing”; Fraser and Freeman, “A Brief History of Opposition to Public Sector Unionism”; Stephens, Benefits of Bargaining: How Public Worker Negotiations Improve Ohio Communities, A Report from Policy Matters Ohio.
  8. To purchase From Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism, see http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/86xzx9kn9780252040818.html.
  9. An email message from Jerry Gordon to David Riehle on January 19, 2011, in the author’s possession, which describes the Ohio campaign against Right to Work.
  10. See Tucker, “How We Beat ‘Right to Work.”
  11. Peter Rachleff, “Rebellion to Tyrants, Democracy for Workers”; Burns, Strike Back: Using the Militant Tactics of Labor’s Past to Reignite Public Sector Unionism Today; Early and Wilson, “Back to the Future: Union Survival Strategies in Open Shop America.”

WORKS CITED

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Burns, Joe. 2014. Strike Back: Using the Militant Tactics of Labor’s Past to Reignite Public Sector Unionism Today. Brooklyn, NY: Ig Press.

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Dannin, Ellen and Hodges, Ann. 2013. “Why the National Labor Relations Act Is a Weak Law Today—And How We Can Restore Its Power,” Truthout (March 28).

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Early, Steve and Wilson, Rand. 2012. “Back to the Future: Union Survival Strategies in Open Shop America.” Z Net (17 April).

Fisher, Daniel. 2010. “Supreme Court OKs Election Spending by Corporations.” Forbes (January 21).

Fraser, Steve and Freeman, Joshua. 2011. “A Brief History of Opposition to Public Sector Unionism.” New Labor Forum (Fall). Retrieved from: http://hnn.us/articles/139820.html.

Keller, Edward A. 1956. The Case for Right-to-Work Laws: A Defense of Voluntary Unionism. Chicago: Heritage Foundation.

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Sexton, Patricia Cayo. 1991. The War on Labor and the Left. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

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Slichter, Summer. 1949. “The Taft-Hartley Act,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 63, no. 1 (February).

Stephens, Philip. 2011. Benefits of Bargaining: How Public Worker Negotiations Improve Ohio Communities, A Report from Policy Matters Ohio. (October). Retrieved from www.policymattersohio.org.

Tomlins, Christopher. 1985. The State and the Unions: Labor Relations, Law, and the Organized Labor Movement in America, 1880–1960. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Tucker, Jerry. 2011. “How We Beat ‘Right to Work.” Labor Notes (March 8).

Yeselson, Rich. 2013. “Fortress Unionism.” Democracy, No. 28 (Summer).


Peter Rachleff is the founding co-executive director of the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul, Minnesota. Previously, he taught labor, African American, and immigration history for more than 30 years, primarily at Macalester College and Metropolitan State University. His publications include Black Labor in Richmond, 1865-1890 and Hard-Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement.  


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