Labor Day must rank second only to Valentine’s Day in terms of our ignorance about the holiday’s reason for existing. Other than a column or two on the fading labor movement, or a union hall fish fry, the grand history of American unions is largely forgotten.
So, this weekend, just about as many of us will think about labor unions as those who dwell upon St. Valentine’s martyrdom in a Roman coliseum next February. For unions, this is a largely self-inflicted wound.
Before World War II, American unions may have been unloved by business owners, but were hardly the target of widespread calumny and disdain. Indeed, the labor movement is largely responsible for securing cherished workplace reforms we now view as commonplace. But the movement itself contained an intellectual force that disdained national identity, arguing for an international brotherhood of workers. To many, this smelled an awful lot like communism.
Perhaps the most absurd case of this occurred when the United Mine Workers went on strike in 1943, during the darkest days of World War II, as daily American battle deaths exceeded those we’ve thus far lost in Afghanistan. Hatred of unions swept the military—miners were exempt from the draft, paid much better than an Army sergeant, and demanding a salary increase equivalent to half the annual pay of a draftee. FDR weighed in clearly during a May 1943 fireside chat, noting that “every idle miner directly and individually is obstructing the war effort.”
Though the union movement in general avoided strikes during the war and many were strongly anti-communist in the 1950s and 1960s, the widespread support for unions was never again as broad, even as membership climbed. By the 1970s, strikes that appeared to cripple an already fragile economy and wage demands that seemed to help fuel inflation clobbered the union movement’s popular appeal. It didn’t matter that the strikes and wage demands did little to damage the economy and nothing to spawn inflation—the damage was done. By the 1980s, union membership began to plummet, far faster than manufacturing job losses would suggest. At the end of this recession, private-sector unions face extinction. But it need not be so.
For labor unions to survive, they must follow the path of their more successful brethren in trade unions. As I noted in an earlier column (which resulted in many angry letters), trade unions, masons, carpenters and the like have a centuries-old tradition and serve as marketplaces for skilled workers. Trade unions remain strong because they work with, not against, the businesses that employ them. This symbiotic relationship isn’t transient, but is foundational to the way they do business.
Certainly, the relationship between trade unions and businesses isn’t all love and sunshine, but it works. While many in the large labor unions are working on reforming, they also need a lot of reputation management. For you see, while ancient stone masons spawned a worldwide fraternal group, the UMW’s preferred presidential candidate hasn’t won West Virginia in three elections.•
Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.