Let’s be honest. Almost every person who works for a living works for someone else. We work in all sorts of jobs, in all types of industries, and under all kinds of conditions. But no matter what the circumstances, we do not work for ourselves or for each other, which means that the most fundamental aspects of our work are not controlled by us. Furthermore, our employers try to organize their workplaces so that we cannot exert much control by our own actions. For example, each of us needs to work; we do not labor for the fun of it, but to pay our bills and support our families. Yet none of us can guarantee that we will have work on any given day, let alone for an entire working life. If our employer decides to shut down the business, move it, or introduce labor-saving machinery, none of us, acting alone, can do anything about it.
I was a college teacher, and I worked for the same school for thirty-two years. By most accounts I was a good teacher; I once won an award for my teaching. Most people would say that my job required a lot of skill; I certainly had to be a student for a long time to qualify to do it. Suppose that I had believed that I was being paid too little for my work. I go to my supervisor, and I tell him this. He is sympathetic and says that he will see what he can do. Weeks go by and nothing happens, so I go back to his office. He tells me that he would like to give me more money, but the budget for the school is tight and there is nothing he can do now. If at this point, I tell him that I cannot work for the
money I am being paid and that I will have to seek other employment at the end of the school year, what do you suppose he will say? Will my threat to leave get me more money? I doubt it. He will know that if I do leave, the college will do one of two things. It may place advertisements for my replacement, and at least one hundred applicants will seek my job. They will all work for less than my salary, and the college will be under no obligation to grant them the type of job security that I now have. Or, the college will not replace me and simply eliminate my classes, assigning them to the remaining teachers or hiring part-timers to teach some of them. In other words, I am replaceable, and nothing I can do myself can change this. When push comes to shove, my employer holds all of the cards.
What was true for me is true for the overwhelming majority of workers. If you do not believe me, just ask yourself what your boss would say if you insisted on a significant raise and said that you would not work without one. Naturally you do not have to confine yourself to a pay hike. Try insisting that your hours be cut with no loss of wages, or that your employer finance a pension for you, or that your employer purchase expensive safety equipment so you can do your job without risking your health, or that your buddy who was fired be reinstated. You can ask for these things, but you cannot force the employer to give them to you.
If we are honest, we must admit that our employers have power over us. Some of them may be nice and some of them may be nasty, but none of them will spend money just because it would be good for us. They know that as individuals we are less powerful than they. We have only our ability to work to sell, but they have the jobs. In our economic system, these jobs belong to them and not to us, and they can do with them whatever they want. It is a simple but powerful truth that working people and their employers do not face each other as equals. Their employers have the jobs they need, and workers are replaceable.1
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
While most working people know that they cannot do much on their own, some choose to ignore this fact. Perhaps they are afraid, or maybe they believe that they will become supervisors some day, or maybe
they think that they deserve to be controlled by someone else. Sooner or later, however, most workers will draw the obvious conclusion: if they stick together with their fellow workers, they can change things. Usually something will happen at work that sparks general anger and resentment. My wife and my daughter once worked at a daycare center run by a large national corporation. Despite the pitifully low pay, most of the women there enjoyed working with young children, and most of them showed little day-to-day animosity toward their employer. Yet, they were unhappy about nearly every aspect of their work. Once a month, the supervisor had an after-work staff meeting to inform the workers of changes in policies and to give them the impression that management was concerned about employee welfare. Ordinarily, none of them had the nerve to openly challenge the office manager at these meetings, despite the fact that most of them couldn’t stand her personally and had the deepest dislike for the company. Right before one meeting, the company issued a directive that each worker had to wear a uniform and a nametag. This led to much grumbling and discussion. A few people said that they would not comply with this policy, and if they were forced to, they would quit. At the meeting, my wife brought the issue out in the open, along with other complaints, including direct criticisms of the manager. Her courage stiffened the backbones of others, and before long, a barrage of angry comments filled the air. Faced with such a revolt the supervisor was forced to retreat and make promises that she would investigate some of the complaints. And no one wore a uniform!
Direct actions such as this occur every day in thousands of workplaces around the world. Through them workers learn the power of solidarity and begin to understand the great gap between what is and what could be. At the daycare center “what is” is the minimum wage, few benefits, onerous working conditions, favoritism, and no respect.2
In 2006, median annual salary for daycare employees was $17,630. But this is certainly not “what could be.” Surely, those who care for our children deserve better, but the corporation’s greed and the inability of the workers to exert their collective power prevents “what could be” from becoming reality.
After the meeting, a few of the women began to discuss their work situation more seriously. Out of these discussions, they came up with
a plan of action, based upon their knowledge that the center’s contract to provide daycare was about to expire. The daycare provider is under contract with a large university hospital, and many of the children’s parents work for the hospital. A contingent of daycare workers went to see the hospital administrator, who deals regularly with the provider, and workers also began to speak with sympathetic parents. Their message was that unless the hospital chose a new provider, they would quit the center. This was especially upsetting to the parents, whose children were attached to the workers, and who frequently had to hire sitters to care for their children at home in evenings and on weekends. The hospital also did not want a mass exodus of skilled and caring workers. Ultimately, the company’s contract was not renewed, and a new provider was chosen, paying higher wages and offering better benefits. On the other hand, not all of the workers were hired by the new center.
While the spontaneous organizing just described occurs all of the time and often results in gains for the workers, it is not enough to insure permanent results. First, workers quit, retire, and move, so the workers who win a particular struggle may not be there for the next fight. Second, workers may not always have the energy for direct actions, especially in situations that they may not perceive as important. For example, suppose a worker is fired unfairly, but he has a spotty work record and is not universally loved by his coworkers. It is unlikely that they will threaten to quit unless he is reinstated. Third, long-term improvement in the conditions of employment may require money and constant attention. Thus, it is not surprising that working people have come to the realization that more formal organizing is necessary. In all capitalist societies, those who toil for others have formed labor unions to defend themselves and advance their interests in the face of powerful employers.3
In many ways, a labor union is like any other voluntary organization. Say some residents in a community are unhappy with the condition of their streets, schools, and playgrounds. Some activists call a meeting at a local church, and a large number of people show up. After they voice their concerns, someone proposes that they form a neighborhood association to pressure the town’s leaders to do something about their problems. Some temporary officers are elected, and regular meetings are established. Plans of action are formulated, and tactics
for achieving the groups’ goals are worked out. A committee is formed to devise a set of bylaws for the organization, and these include provisions for the selection of officers, outlining the purpose of the organization, conditions of membership, and so forth. As the group grows and achieves some successes, its members decide to assess dues on members, rent office space, obtain some used office equipment, and hire an office manager. The more or less spontaneous actions that led to the original formation have generated a more formal, structured, and hopefully permanent institution.4
What distinguishes labor unions from other voluntary organizations is that they are formed in response to the daily grind of working for others. The understanding that workers, as individuals, are powerless leads toward recognition that they share this powerlessness with others. They begin to identify with their workmates, and this identification, based upon shared work experience, is the root cause of the formation of a labor union. When this sense of identity as working people combines with enough frustration at work, actions follow: spontaneous walkouts or slowdowns, forced meetings with the bosses, the stopping of the work process. Sooner or later, the need for a permanent defender, an independent organization standing ready to take on the employer, is felt—and the labor union is born.
In 1776 there were not many wage laborers in the United States. Most workers in the South were, of course, slaves. In the North, most people were farmers. What little manufacturing existed was carried on in small shops organized on a guild model, with young apprentices learning a trade taught them by skilled journeymen and master craftsmen. The masters owned the shops, but they worked alongside their men, most of whom aspired to become masters themselves. With the onset of the nineteenth century, however, things began to change dramatically. The possibility of making large sums of money grew with the development of mass markets for items like shoes and clothing. Masters began to see that if they organized their shops in a more hierarchical way, they could increase their profits. They began to take on more apprentices, but they confined them to doing unskilled work. And they began to resist any demands by their journeymen (skilled manufacturing workers) for higher “prices” for their work—that is, more pay. At the same time, the invention of labor-saving and skill-reducing machines, such as power looms, led to the construction of factories in which large quantities of goods could be produced. These factories, especially the textile mills of New England, began to hire young farm girls to do the work. In these factories, there was a clear separation between the workers and the owners from the beginning, whereas in the small craft shops, it took the journeymen some time to see that their interests were separate from those of the masters. As the differences between workers and owners sharpened and became clearer, the journeymen did what workers always do. They began to organize to protect themselves. In Philadelphia in 1806, shoemakers (or cordwainers as they were then called) presented the city’s shoe masters with a “price list” for the various types of work they did. When the masters refused to honor their list, the cordwainers said that they would not work for any master who would not pay them their prices. And they would not work alongside any cordwainer who would work for less than the proposed rates. What they were trying to do was to create a “closed shop,” that is, an arrangement in which the masters could not hire anyone who was not a member of the journeymen’s union. Likewise, the young women in the textile factories struck to protest wage cuts. A strike in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1834 encompassed one-sixth of the city’s workforce.6 These early attempts at unionization met with a host of obstacles. The economy was subject to sudden depressions, and the resulting unemployment quickly destroyed the unions. The employers aggressively resisted the efforts of their upstart workers, and the press and many politicians condemned the unions as threats to liberty. The Philadelphia cordwainers were taken to court by the masters, and the judge ruled that their union was a “criminal conspiracy,” worthy of fines and jail time for the members. The law was uniformly hostile to any attempts by workers to organize.7 Women workers faced special difficulties in organizing. Not only did they have to contend with the normal greed of their employers, but they also had to confront the hostility of men, including most male workers, toward any acts of female independence. As one woman put it, “It needs no small share of courage for us, who have been used to impositions and oppression from our youth up to the present day, to come before the public in defense of our own rights.”8 Yet workers persevered, moving forward in good times and backward in bad, but always creating the memory for their heirs that only collective actions could improve their lot in life. By the middle of the 1880s, skilled workers, at least, had finally managed to achieve a permanent organization, the American Federation of Labor or AFL.9
DO UNIONS WORK?
We are regularly told by employers and by the media that unions are neither necessary nor beneficial for workers. When employers get wind of an attempt by their employees to unionize, they usually begin a disinformation campaign. They say that workers are no better off with a union than without one, and most likely worse off. Unions, they charge, are undemocratic outsiders whose leaders are interested only in their own power and in filling the union’s treasury. They ask workers a simple question: why should they vote in a union when the only “benefit” they will get will be the privilege of paying dues? By their argument, a union will inevitably lead them out on strike, forcing them to lose their paychecks, with no guarantee of any gains; these strikes tend to be violent, and their only result will be the breakdown of workplace harmony. Here is part of an actual letter sent by management to some restaurant workers trying to form a union:
Dear Fellow Employees:
As you know, there will be a Union election on July 9. At that election each of you will have the opportunity to vote to determine whether or not you want to be represented by the restaurant workers’ union.
You are much luckier than the employees at Fiorello’s, our restaurant on the west side. Some time ago those employees voted to be represented by the restaurant workers’ union. They were led down the primrose path by Union promises of increased wage benefits. In fact, after the Union negotiated a contract with the restaurant management which, in my opinion, gave the employees at Fiorello’s no more than they would have gotten had there been no union—and probably gave them less [sic]. In addition, I believe that many of these employees will be hurt by the inflexibility of the Union contract.…
On the other hand, you know from the experience of Fiorello’s employees exactly the kind of contract the Union would negotiate if it became your collective bargaining representative. A contract which produces nothing more than you would expect to receive were there no union in the picture. For that, you are afforded the privilege of paying Union dues.…
The restaurant does not want a Union at Fiorello’s! Our experience on the west side has shown that we can negotiate an agreement with the Union which does not cost us any more in wages and benefits than without the Union and may even cost less. But our experience on the west side has also shown us that the presence of the Union results in a tense working relationship with extreme disharmony among the employees.
This is a real cost to everyone. It can result in a loss of customers and a loss of income to our employees who serve those customers, as well as the restaurant itself. The Union benefits no one but itself.10
The media seldom present unions in a favorable light, ignoring their positive features and highlighting and exaggerating the negative ones. Strike violence11
always makes the front page, although it is seldom mentioned that employers nearly always instigate such violence. If employers hire scabs to replace the strikers, the media will not question whether the companies should have the right to do so. Instead, they will highlight the confrontations between the strikers and the police brought in to insure that the scabs can get through the picket lines. The daily work of unions in securing higher wages and benefits, safer workplaces, and the right to a fair hearing for complaints against
the employer is ignored completely. In the more artistic media, such as films, the collective struggles of working people rarely take center stage, and when they do, they tend to be tainted wit...