Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Organized Labor: Agincourt or Waterloo?

By Robert Weir

[The opinions expressed in the following essay are solely those of the author and do not represent ABC-CLIO.]

In 1415, King Henry V found himself trapped by French forces numbering more than 25,000. Against all odds, Henry’s band of around 8,500 routed superior French forces and inflicted a 10:1 casualty rate upon them. Turn the clock forward 400 years to 1815. Near Waterloo, Belgium, the Duke of Wellington defeated 69,000 troops commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon spent the last six years of his life exiled on a floating rock known as St. Helena.

Why the ancient history lesson? Jump ahead another 300 years and look at Wisconsin. The unfolding drama there may well determine whether organized labor is fighting its Agincourt or its Waterloo. If labor unions lose this one, they may well be as defunct as their ancient roots: the guild system of Henry V’s time.

Only a foolish optimist would deny that organized labor is reeling. Fewer than 12% of all American workers, and just 7% of those in the private sector, belong to unions. At present, any occupation that can be moved is practically unorganizable (and will remain so barring an unlikely Congressional vote to amend existing labor laws). The only glimmer of hope is among workers whose jobs can’t be moved: teachers, fire fighters, cops, civil servants, medical personnel, and service-industry workers. If Governor Scott Walker strips collective bargaining rights from these workers, there won’t be much left upon which organized labor can rebuild, and the only unions left with clout will be those in entertainment and professional sports.

Is Wisconsin broke? Yes. Is Governor Walker out of options? No. Budget cuts involve a choice of which cows will be led to the abattoir and Walker’s decision to place teachers and public employees in that herd is clearly an ideologically driven attempt to smash unions that didn’t support his election. Wisconsin’s projected budget deficit is $137 million; nearly double that could be raised if Governor Walker chose to slash 20% from the department of corrections. He won’t do that because police fraternities endorsed him.

It’s historical fact, not partisan rant, to associate the Republican Party with an aggressive anti-union position. Most historians trace the party’s pro-business shift to the 1896 election in which William McKinley ascended to the presidency by convincing the electorate that he’d save the nation from inflationary Free Silver advocates, socialist-leaning Populists, and labor radicals. Walker’s freedom of contract language is straight out of the open-shop movement of the 1920s, his desire to curtail union activism reminiscent of Republicans who advanced the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, and his threat to fire workers evocative of President Ronald Reagan during the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike.

Unions rallied from setbacks in the past. McKinley’s pro-business polices inspired a surge in union membership in the early twentieth century. The open shop drive weakened with the coming of the Great Depression and the labor reforms of the New Deal; Taft-Hartley led the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations to bury their hatchets and merge in 1955. Labor even halted the expansion of Reagan-era right-to-work legislation.

But the United States is a very different place now. In the past, unions regrouped because America was still a powerful industrial nation with jobs that had to get done. In the current postindustrial and globalized economy the future of work itself is uncertain, not just organized labor’s role in the economy. Those who say that the AFL-CIO’s brand of business unionism is a relic of the industrial past may have a point.

Is there hope? It could depend on what happens in Wisconsin. Labor’s one bright spot over the past few decades has been among government employees, over 40% of whom are unionized. In the past, public employees have shown more defiance of than respect for political bullying. Teachers had no collective bargaining rights until 1960, when New York City educators ignored threats and labor laws to win a contract. Ten years later post office employees launched the first-ever nationwide strike of federal workers, also despite strike prohibitions. The American Federation of Government Employees has stared down several hostile White House administrations. But if Wisconsin causes public employee unions to go the way of blue-collar organizations, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka can book passage to St. Helena. Another lesson from the past: Wisconsin state troopers should watch their backs before trusting Governor Walker. Just two major unions endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980: the Teamsters and PATCO! As Mark Twain once observed, “Gratitude and treachery are merely the two extremities of the same procession.”


ROBERT E. WEIR is a Lecturer at Commonwealth College, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Visiting Lecturer at Smith College, co-editor of the acclaimed Historical Encyclopedia of Labor (Greenwood, 2004), and a freelance writer.

Addition Reading

Robert E. Weir, ed., James P. Hanlan, ed.
Greenwood, 2004

This two-volume, A-Z resource covers the history of organized labor in all of its complexity, from the dawn of the industrial revolution to the post-industrial age.

Robert E. Weir, ed.

This A-Z encyclopedia, the first to focus on class in the United States, surveys the breadth of class strata throughout our history, cross-discipline, for high school students to the general public.

From the explorers of the Americas to the issues of today's headlines, the American History database investigates the people, events, and stories of our nation's evolution.

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