Whether or not it is time to write organized labor’s obituary remains to be seen. But if unions and their chief tool, collective bargaining, become feeble and infirm in the coming years, 2011 will be a key date to remember.
Journalist Philip Dray, author of “There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America,” points out some other key dates. Those include the late 19th century, 1935 and 1981.
The union movement rose out of the late 19th century when those working in textile mills began to join together to demand better working conditions.
“In the mid-19th century,” Mr. Dray said in a recent interview, “the campaign was for the 10-hour work day. People said, ‘We don’t have time to buy the products we’re making. We don’t have time to even become citizens. We don’t have time to read the Bible.’ So it became a very compelling argument. And the hours argument was one that union always did fairly well with, even though it took many years to get them in the law books.”
In fact, the six-day workweek was common until the Great Depression. The 40-hour workweek wasn’t widely established until the 1940s. Of course, wages, safe working conditions and later benefits such as holidays, vacations, overtime pay, health insurance and retirement pensions became issues for negotiation.
Many believe pure market dynamics should rule the labor-employer relationship. If certain skills are in great demand and short supply, they assert, wages and benefits will rise to lure them. But the evidence, time and time again, was that too many people suffered too greatly under this model. Society functioned better with people earning living wages and working under safe conditions. So government, at the behest of citizens, intervened and created workplace safety and child labor laws, minimum wage, overtime and benefit schedules and, chief among these, the right to bargain collectively.
When a majority of workers formed a bargaining unit, the employer was bound by law to recognize that group and negotiate in good faith with it. Collective bargaining rights were enshrined in the federal Labor Relations Act in 1935. In 1962, federal law extended collective bargaining rights to federal employees.
Mr. Dray points to the federal air traffic controller strike of 1981 as a turning point. When more than 12,000 workers struck, President Ronald Reagan asserted they had violated the law as essential public safety workers and said he would fire them if they didn’t return to work within 48 hours. They did not, and he fired them.
The president replaced the union air traffic controllers with non-union workers.
Unions were born of industrial work, where large numbers of people worked and lived in close quarters. In the modern economy, where people work in smaller shops, organizing is more difficult. Union membership nationally is down by 80 percent since the mid-1950s; only about 12 percent of workers belong to a labor union.
If the trend of states stripping public sector workers of their collective bargaining rights holds, the American work place will indeed enter a new — or return to an old — era, one that is bound to be rife with conflict.