A Brief History of Labor Unions
Workers have been organizing for better conditions and better pay in the workplace since at least the time of Ancient Egypt, but the modern labor movement and the push toward organized labor unions was born around the same time capitalism and European imperialism began to spread across the globe. Some of the earliest rebellions against capitalism came from the American colonies, including the Polish Craftsmen Strike, the Virginia Indentured Servants Plot, and Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia.
Many of these early strikes and uprisings came from white indentured servants and African slaves. At the time there was little distinction between the two, with Irish and Scottish servants not even being considered “white” at the time, but after a constant stream of uprisings when both groups joined forces, colonial governments implemented a strict caste system that has left poor white Americans and people of color divided to this day.
The modern labor movement in the United States was born around the mid-1800’s. This was a time of rapid industrialization in the Northeast and in Midwestern cities like Chicago and St. Louis. A detailed history of the labor movement is impossible in an introductory article, but throughout the mid-to-late 1800’s there were countless railroad, textile, and miner strikes. The militant labor movement can trace its roots back to the Haymarket Affair, out of which a widespread demand for an 8-hour work day was born. Militant strikes swept the coal country of Appalachia and Northwest in the late-1800’s and early 1900’s, with the Battle of Matewan and the Battle of Blair Mountain marking the height of militant labor fights. These events still live on in Appalachian folklore, even while support for unions has declined.
In the Northeast a wave of textile strikes swept through mills in the early 1900’s. Between 1929-1934 even the traditionally non-union South saw militant textile and cotton mill strikes. Mill workers in Western North Carolina, Upstate South Carolina, Eastern Tennessee, Northern Alabama, and North Georgia were the most violent areas of conflict during the 1934 Textile Strike.
This steady wave or strikes placed capitalists and their profit margins at risk. The looming threat of an unstable work force discouraged investors from pumping money into the US economy. A number of particularly violent strikes swept the country during the Great Depression in 1934 (among them the Textile Strike, the West Coast Longshore Strike, and the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike). Many radical workers saw in this moment the imminent demise of capitalism. But capitalism is incredibly capable of adapting to new conditions.
In 1935 Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which gave legal recognition to labor unions. This move took much of the steam out of more radical elements of the labor movement. While union wages steadily increased in the post-World War II era, Congress and states passed laws that limited the effectiveness of unions and, as union leadership became notoriously corrupt, union bosses were increasingly more likely to side with management against the interests of workers.
Before the NLRA, and ever since, there have been legal protections for what are known as “minority unions.” Workers are legally protected as long as two or more workers in a workplace are working to improve conditions for all the workers. Some unions, like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, founded in 1905) have used this tactic to organize the food and retail industries, which have proven particularly difficult for even the largest unions to organize.
We’re still a long way from having any really substantial representation with solidarity unions, but some have already made important gains for workers at places like Starbucks, Whole Foods, Walmart, and various small coffee shops, bakeries, and grocery stores.,
Defining Key Terms
Contract is a legal agreement between workers and management on terms like pay, grievance procedures, and how the workplace will operate. They are generally set for a certain number of years, during which workers promise not to strike. This can often result in workplace abuses or grievances not being addressed since workers have no recourse to their most powerful form of resistance. Most mainstream unions use contracts. Some minority union shops do not, preferring to make and maintain gains on their own terms.
Direct Action is any action that you or your co-workers take to improve conditions. Strikes, boycotts, and work slowdowns are good examples. Relying on politicians to change laws or getting people to sign a petition, while sometimes effective, rarely yield meaningful results. Direct action has a long history of success in the labor movement and other social movements.
Labor is the workers who produce everything of value. They build the products we use, grow and prepare our food, write software and operate computers, etc.. Some Marxists group workers into various categories, but anarchists and libertarian communists usually separate economic interests into two groups: the working class and the employing class, who are perpetually at odds. Anyone who relies on selling out their labor in order to survive can be considered working class, even if they’re well paid.
Mainstream or Business Unions are those that have gone through an election process where more than 50% of workers in a workplace have voted to join a union. It is incredibly difficult to gain representation like this in most workplaces because of intimidation from bosses and politicians or anti-union propaganda. Sometimes minority interests are lost in a “majority-rules” framework.
Means of Production or Capital is the tools and equipment that make the workplace operate. In the industrial era this would be machines or tool used in a workplace. Nowadays it might include software, computers, or information networks. While the bosses own these resources, they are created by workers, who invest their labor into the resources and rarely see the full value returned to them.
Solidarity is the sense of a mutual interest between workers. For example, helping other workers at a company in your industry can result in a domino effect that might increase wages or improve conditions at other companies in that industry. It is the sense that we’re all in this together and that our bosses are committed to paying us as little as they can get by with and treating us as poorly as they’re legally allowed.
Solidarity Union is two or more workers in a workplace working to improve conditions for all workers. They are given legal protections under the NLRA, but this is not how most unions are organized. Solidarity unions have proven particularly effective in industries that are difficult to organize, like food and retail, but have also been used in the medical, education, transportation, and other industries.
Examples of Unions in Action
Why Contracts are Sometimes a Bad Idea
Example 1: Darius works at a shipping facility that’s represented by a major union. They recently signed a contract with a three-year term. The contract contains a clause saying that the union will not go on strike or boycott during the contract. Darius and several other workers of color feel that their bosses are discriminating against them. They talk to the shop steward, an older white man, and file grievances, but receive no response. Darius and the other workers of color, who make up a majority of the workplace, take their issue to the union leadership. The union bosses say their hands are tied because they can’t go on strike, but they’ll talk to management and see what can be done. After several months with no response Darius and several other workers leave and find work at other companies without a union.
Example 2: Javier, Emilee, and Cassie work at a sandwich shop. There are 15 employees and two managers. The workers have a standing agreement with management that none of the workers be required to work a “clopening” shift (a closing shift late at night followed by an early opening shift the next day). They get a new store manager who decides to do away with that policy and decrease their hours so the store will make more money. Javier, Emilee, and Cassie go together to talk with the manager and demand the policy be re-instated. They serve him a letter with a time limit and tell him they have the support of other workers (only two, but enough to make an impact). When the time limit passes the 5 workers go on strike. This leaves the shop short-handed and the managers actually have to do real work. The workers send a request to contacts in the food and retail industry across the country to call the shop all day. Since the shop relies on call-in to-go orders, business comes to a standstill. Within two days the boss gives in. The workers get back pay for the time they missed and are given complete control over the schedule-making process.
Improving Poor Conditions vs. Watching the Company’s Bottom-line
Example 1: Anna works in an auto parts factory. Her and other workers in her unit have been complaining they need air conditioning in their workplace in the summer. The company puts it off and the union tells the workers there’s nothing they can do but try to get it put in the next contract. Contract negotiations are coming up and the factory is about to sign a big deal with an automaker. Anna passes out from a heat stroke on the shop floor and later dies. The company attributes her death to a pre-existing condition. The union leadership is hesitant to make an issue about Anna’s death with contract negotiations looming, although they do promise to put safeguards in place, which the company agrees to. Unfortunately, Anna never gets to enjoy the new air-conditioned workplace.
Example 2: Philip and Sandra work at a bicycle shop. They’ve complained several times to their boss that their workplace (a small garage in the back and the showroom are always hot, despite having A/C) is excessively hot and they fear becoming dehydrated or having a heat stroke. One day Sandra buys two cooling fans and brings them into the shop. She places one in the showroom and one in the garage, both with stickers that say “Brought to you by the workers of Hill City Bikes.” Feeling embarrassed, the boss cranks up the A/C and, combined with the fan in the back, Philip and Sandra are satisfied and work more comfortably. They’ve also interested the other two workers at the shop in helping improve other problems they face on the job.
Supporting Social Movements Because Oppressed Minorities are Workers Too
Example 1: Anthony works at a major retail chain. He has connections with members of a solidarity union across the country and begins talking with workers at his workplace and at other stores in major cities. Many of them decide to stage a walkout on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year. The first year they do this they manage to gather a handful of workers from 200 (out of 2,700) stores to walkout for the whole day and picket outside the store. While the action didn’t win them better wages, it did get a lot of attention. The next year they staged a similar action and got 10-15% of the workers from over 700 stores to participate. This got a lot of public attention and started to impact investments in the company. The workers staged random walkouts throughout the year, usually at peak times. The third Black Friday they got workers from 2,000 stores to walkout and the strikes lasted the entire weekend, costing the company billions of dollars. Three months later the company agreed to raise wages for all workers (though not as much as they’d been asking for) and consider negotiations with the union.
Example 2: The “Black Lives Matter” campaign swept the country toward the end of 2014 and into 2015. Many unions released statements of support and made efforts to help people of color who had become victims of police violence. Their reasoning was that most black people are part of the working class and therefore they share a common interest. During the Christmas shopping season, groups of protesters randomly entered shopping malls to disrupt shopping, with some workers joining in. Protesters also blocked roads, making retail shipments late and costing big retailers millions of dollars. Dock workers all along the West Coast shut down every single port for one day in solidarity with the workers. Black workers have been consistently under-represented in unions and are often marginalized. The show of solidarity helped them to feel more empowered and interested them in organizing unions in their own workplaces to fight for better conditions.
All of these examples are based on real world experiences of workers. Many are very recent. Workers in the US have become complacent and comfortable because most of us enjoy a fairly comfortable standard of living, and those who don’t are too busy to fight back. As austerity makes its way from Europe and Latin America across our borders, these struggles will become more important. We have a long history from which to draw inspiration and a brilliant class of young workers willing to try new tactics and put their freedom and their bodies on the line to build a better world for all workers.
About Worker-Owned Cooperatives
Worker-owned cooperatives have received a fair amount of attention on the Left in recent years. They present a viable option for workers to gain meaningful, democratic control of their workplaces. They teach workers that they don’t need bosses to manage things for them. Worker-owned cooperatives are more socially conscious and generally give back more to their communities than a large corporation or privately-owned business.
Worker cooperatives are a great stepping-stone toward a liberated society and a working class that controls the means of production, but they’re limited. In an economic landscape dominated by large corporations, small worker cooperatives are subject to market forces that force them to set wages or prices that might be oppressive to workers and customers. Even large-scale worker-cooperatives like the Mondragon Corporation in Spain, which is a multi-billion dollar corporation comprised of over 100 companies, rely on outsourcing wage labor to less-developed countries to remain competitive., And while their executives aren’t compensated nearly as well as those at Fortune 500 companies, they make several times what most workers receive.
Worker cooperatives can be a useful tool as we try to leverage ourselves toward dismantling capitalism, but they’re by no means a final step on the path to working class liberation, even if all workplaces become worker cooperatives. In Spain, during the anarchist period from 1936-1939, we saw what were effectively worker cooperatives thrive, but also compete for resources and markets. The internal failings of this economic model led to the eventual defeat of the anarchists and the rule of a brutal fascist regime.
Whether through worker cooperatives, educational workshops, or on the job experience, the more we convey the message that workers have the collective power to liberate themselves and stop making a handful of billionaires ever more rich, the better off we’ll be. Whether we agree with mainstream unions or not, they represent a tremendous number of workers who are our allies and who share a mutual interest. We should be careful not to isolate them. And we must always be conscious of workers who are marginalized or whose needs are left unconsidered in conversations about building stronger working-class organizations.
Why Solidarity Unions Don’t Rely on Labor Law and the State
In some unions, like the IWW, organizers refer to labor law (specifically the NLRA) as a defensive “shield” and direct action as our “sword” to go on offense. The truth is, the NLRA and subsequent labor laws were designed to protect the interests of capitalism. They provide the bare minimum protection for workers to keep them from openly revolting, and it fails even at that on occasion.
Members of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which hears complaints from workers and unions, are appointed by presidents and subject to the whims of whatever political party happens to be in power at the time. Moreover, mainstream unions have displayed a consistent pattern of supporting and funding member of the Democrat (and occasionally Republican) Party, which is openly dedicated to protecting capitalism.
Our hopes for liberation and a democratic workplace that operates in our interests don’t like in politicians. Despite their rhetoric, they have repeatedly failed us. Elected union officials have a similarly poor record of fighting for rank-and-file workers.
The NRLA was created to take the steam out of direct action tactics like general strikes. The labor landscape has been dotted with occasional strikes since the 1930’s, but none have slowed the growth of capitalism. Only recently have we seen a re-emergence of more militant tactics. In recent years we’ve seen a crossover between mass social movements (e.g., Occupy and Black Lives Matter) with the labor unions that appears promising., Together they’ve already launched numerous road and shipping container blockades, random strikes and walkouts, boycott campaigns, and developed fresh new tactics the old labor movement never considered.
If we’re going to build a society where everyone enjoys the wealth we create and everyone is respected as a person first, but also as a worker, mass social movements and the unions must join together and fight the oppressive forces of capitalism head on. As we advance and capital retreats, we build a new world in the carnage the bosses have left behind. One can only hope we’re not too late to save the planet and our environment from the cancerous spread of capitalism and corporate greed.
Sources and Additional Information
1. Strikes in Ancient Egypt: https://libcom.org/history/records-of-the-strike-in-egypt-under-ramses-iii
2. Jamestown Colony: A Political, Social, and Cultural History, Frank Grizzard, D. Boyd Smith
3. York County Conspiracy: http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/York_County_Conspiracy_1661
4. Bacon’s Rebellion: http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/bacon_s_rebellion_1676-1677
5. Slave rebellions and prison strikes in the US South: http://jeremykgalloway.com/2015/05/15/fighting-for-our-own-working-class-resistance-in-appalachia-and-the-south-part-2-of-3/
6. Birth of the US labor movement: http://www.history.com/topics/labor
7. Battles of Matewan and Blair Mountain: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/12/battle-matewan/
8. Background on 1934 Textile Strike: http://jeremykgalloway.com/2015/05/01/fighting-for-our-own-working-class-resistance-in-appalachia-and-the-south-part-1-of-3/
9. Background on 1934 Teamsters Strike: http://teamster.org/about/teamster-history/1934
10. Background on the NLRA: http://www.iww.org/organize/laborlaw/Lynd/Lynd3.shtml
11. Background on OUR Walmart campaign: http://forrespect.org/associates-get-a-raise/
12. Whole Foods IWW campaign victory: http://www.iww.org/content/whole-foods-concedes-iww-demands-increase-wages
13. Background on Mondragon Worker-owned Corporation: http://www.mondragon-corporation.com/eng/
14. Some problems with the Mondragon model: http://www.cooperativeconsult.com/blog/?p=405
15. Pay scale differences at Mondragon: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/07/mondragon-spains-giant-cooperative
16. Successes and failures in Anarchist Catalonia: http://anarchism.pageabode.com/afaq/secI8.html
17. Background on IWW organizing tactics: http://antipodefoundation.org/2012/03/07/labor-law-is-a-shield-but-direct-action-is-a-sword/
18. Union support of Black Lives Matter movement: http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2015/03/11/3632325/unions-black-lives-matter-activists-join-forces-scott-walker/
19. ILWU May Day strike in support of Black Lives Matter: http://socialistworker.org/2015/05/04/closing-the-port-for-black-lives