An elegy for Labor Day

Published 8:25 am Wednesday, September 6, 2017


Contributing Columnist

Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.

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– Lincoln, Message to Congress, December 3, 1861

According to the Department of Labor’s website, “Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers.” In other words, it’s a tribute to the contribution of organized labor.

However, when we reflect on the history and present state of American labor, it’s hard to find cause for celebration. The percentage of workers belonging to unions has declined from its 1945 peak of 35.4 percent to just 6.4 percent of the private sector in 2016.

Congress made Labor Day a national holiday in 1894, in an effort to pacify American workers after President Grover Cleveland sent 12,000 troops to suppress a national strike against Pullman by the American Railway Union. As noted labor historian G. William Domhoff tells us in “Who Rules America,” “After 1877, American labor relations were the most violent in the Western world, with the exception of Russia.”

Violent suppression of unions continued well into the 20th century. Employers often supplemented regular state and local police with deputized company guards, private detective agencies and goon squads. One infamous example of this unrelenting assault is the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, in which Baldwin Felts agents machine-gunned and burned the tent colony occupied by striking miners and their families. They killed around 24 people, including women and children.

Why do workers want to form unions? The reasons are obvious. They want to be treated in the workplace with the same respect that the Constitution accords them as citizens. Even when they don’t own their workplaces, they want safe working conditions, reasonable working hours and the ability to resist what they see as arbitrary employer decisions such as sudden layoffs, firings and steep wage cuts.

With the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935, it seemed that at long last the federal government would uphold workers’ right to form unions: “Employees shall have the right. . . to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities [incl. strikes] for the purpose of collective bargaining” (NLRA Sec. 7). Employers were prohibited from interfering with union organizing and elections, from retaliation against employees engaged in union activities, and from refusing to bargain in good faith. Labor’s promised land seemed to stretch ahead.

Of course, the broad language in the NLRA’s regulations governing union and employer interaction needed to be interpreted and applied to specific situations. For this purpose, the Act established a kind of court system — the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — to deal with complaints by unions and employers.

The NLRB has five members, nominated for five-year terms by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Moreover, its rulings can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. So the degree to which NLRB rulings will be pro-labor and survive court challenges greatly depends on the political orientation of NLRB and Supreme Court appointees.

Although precedent plays an important role in Supreme Court decisions, at the NLRB, “precedent means nothing. It totally switches back and forth now,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of labor history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. As a result, labor’s gains from NLRB rulings have been unstable and frequently reversed by pro-business majorities.

In 1947 the labor movement suffered a major legislative defeat with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act by a Republican Congress (overriding President Truman’s veto). This law seriously weakened the prolabor features of the NLRA. It permitted states to enact so-called right-to-work (RTW) laws prohibiting union contracts that require employees to pay union dues as a condition of continued employment.

RTW laws invite employees to be ‘free riders,’ benefitting from union representation while not paying dues. As more employees refuse to pay union dues, the cost of the union’s function is born by fewer employees, and the dues have to be increased. This results in even fewer dues-paying members—a death spiral for the union.

For the same reasons, RTW laws block union expansion by reducing funds for organizing and recruiting. After Michigan Republicans passed an RTW law in 2012,” the headcount of union members in Michigan fell by 48,000, even as the workforce grew by 44,000” (Detroit News, 1/23/15). Thanks to the steady increase in GOP-controlled state governments, there are now 28 right-to-work states, nine by constitutional amendment.

Gone are the days when American employers would turn out police and goon squads to intimidate workers trying to unionize. Now, as soon as employers detect evidence of union activity, they turn to one of many firms in the multi-billion dollar union-busting business.

The recent failure of the United Auto Workers’ 12-year campaign to unionize the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi provides a good example of union-busting tactics and the ineffectiveness of the NLRB. As Chris Brooks of Labor Notes reports:

“In the lead-up to the election, the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against Nissan, detailing years of illegal threats made by the company against pro-union employees. The complaint alleges that Nissan supervisors told workers in one-on-one and small group meetings that the company could shut down the plant if it went union.”

Employees were barraged by dire warnings from the state political establishment, nonstop anti-union videos at work, and anti-union advertisements on billboards and local television funded by the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers.

The United States has done the very opposite of Lincoln’s recommendation to give labor “much the higher consideration” over capital. “From 1978 to 2013, CEO compensation, inflation-adjusted, increased 937 percent” for CEOs of the top 350 U.S. firms, while average worker compensation grew by 10.2 percent (EPI). American labor is prostrate before capital.

Happy Labor Day.