On the Demise of Labor Unions

Scott Walker is gone from the Republican race. Good riddance! Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO may have put it best in his tweet when he said: “Scott Walker is still a disgrace, just no longer national.”  Walker, of course, gained national fame in the first place by trashing public workers’ unions while governor of Wisconsin. And he is not the only one. Chris Christie and John Kasich, two other Republican presidential candidates, are on record as anti-union. Gov. Cuomo of New York is not exactly a union supporter. In many southern and western  states, as well as Indiana Michigan and Missouri,  “right to work” laws and other anti-union measures led to foreign  manufacturers to exploit wages. I have been thinking for awhile as to how we got to this point.

As is often the case, there are many players in the demise of unions. The labor movement began in earnest at the close of the 19th century. Some of the early organizers, like Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor, were successful in part because the horrendous working conditions, and major disasters, like the Triangle Shirt Company fire in which hundreds of young female workers perished, began to weigh on the conscience of the American public. Through decades of ups and downs, the American labor movement became a well-established feature in the landscape by the 1950s and 60s.  Since then, however, the power and influence of unions have steadily eroded until today, when cheap politicians use their cheap anti-labor rhetoric to score points during elections. Worse yet, the American public seems to buy into these tactics.  Union membership and bargaining prowess have plummeted in the 21st century. So who is to blame for this precipitous decline in the power and prestige of unions?

Well, for one thing, unions need to look in the mirror to see the enemy. One-by-one, labor unions after World War II became the tools of organized crime. The 1950s-80s were replete with stories of Mafia activity, killings, extortion, bribery, and other negative publicity coming out of the labor movement. This eventually led to a serious erosion of trust of unions as standard bearers for the American worker.

The American worker is not blameless. We became fat and lazy during the years after World War II. My stepfather, who worked in a transmission plant of a large American automobile manufacturer, told me stories of workers literally dropping a wrench into the mechanics of the conveyor belt if they didn’t feel like working. One of the stupidest contract clauses I ever read about was that unionized custodians in a large city’s school buildings had to mop the cafeteria floor only once a week. What if a child dropped his tray the day after the mopping was done? Were kitchen staff supposed to pick up the mess with paper towels?

Manufacturers share in the responsibility by losing out to foreign competition. In the 1960s, we made a lot of low-quality junk. From cars whose hoods and trunk lids didn’t fit right, to appliances that didn’t last, to products that lacked innovation, manufacturers from Japan began to garner larger and larger shares of  the manufacturing market. These Japanese companies were not friends of labor in their own countries. And when they, and Korean and German  companies began  setting up shop in the U.S., they brought their anti-union attitudes with them. American politicians, instead of insisting on honoring American labor values, caved in to these companies in order to secure jobs and, more importantly, their own positions by claiming to bring jobs to their states. It became a competition among states as to who could offer a sweeter deal to these foreigners at the expense of the American worker.

The growing income disparity is another player in this. Money corrupts, and big money corrupts mightily. Big money has bought state houses, state and county legislatures and local courts whose ideology is in tandem with their billionaires’ anti-union attitudes.

So, Walker may be gone. He can concoct malarkey, like he had a Biblical message to withdraw, but he simply ran out of money. At least, Trump has done us THAT favor. But there are plenty of other Walkers out there to try to exploit the American worker. I simply fail to understand why we buy into their message.  Therefore we, the American public, are also responsible for the state of American unions.


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