woody_zimmerman_118_2007Modern Americans seem to be in a love-hate relationship with labor unions. We either hate them or love them, depending on our past experience – or in some cases, lack thereof. Noisy demonstrations in Wisconsin by thousands of public-sector unionized workers seeking to prevent the state from bringing its employee-costs under control have not exactly helped unions’ PR-campaign – especially as news has leaked out on how much better those employees’ pay and benefits are than for the general public.

Full disclosure: my family has never been union-sympathetic. This originates with my dad’s experience as a young man, early in WW II. Pop was newly married then, working for Mack Truck in Allentown, PA. Every few months the union struck for higher benefits, better working conditions, or shorter hours. (Wages were controlled by the government during the war.) As a young worker with zero seniority, Pop received few union-benefits during a strike. “We were starving to death,” he grimly joked, years later.

To keep bread on the table for my mother and me, Pop found work at a Chevrolet Dealer in 1943 for the pitifully low pay of $22.50 a week. But things improved. By 1950 he was making 10 times that as a highly skilled car-body technician and radiator repairman. Eventually he owned his own business, along with two partners from early days at the dealership. Pop often joked that his union experience was crucial. “If it hadn’t been for those guys striking all the time, I would never have learned the skills I needed to have my own business,” he once told me.

My own career contained no union experience because I was fortunate enough to work in an emerging field (computing and mathematical modeling) in an era when few people had those skills. Our pay kept jumping upward without union assistance. The field kept expanding, and there were plenty of jobs, provided that you could keep up with the new technologies.

Others in my extended family had different experiences that influenced their attitudes toward unions. My father-in-law was a young teacher in New York State in 1932. His first music-teaching job in a small western New York school paid just $900 a year. At the close of that year his employers fired him and hired a new teacher for $800 a year. That, in a word, is why we have teachers’ unions today. Dad later left teaching for more stable employment in social work with Indians in Arizona. He never was a union man, but as a lifelong Democrat he approved of what they did for workers who had little protection.

The labor picture of the early 20th century is almost incomprehensible to modern Americans. To keep wages low, many industries employed children and immigrants. Hours were long; pay was often pennies a day; injuries were commonplace; protections were nil. Grown men sat idle while children tended fabric mills and coal-breakers. Some boys even worked dangerous jobs like underground coal mines. In 1900, industrial accidents produced 30,000 deaths and nearly 1 million injuries a year in the USA.

In February, 1912, labor leader Samuel Gompers summarized union accomplishments and objectives in McClure’s Magazine:

And what have our unions done? What do they aim to do? To improve the standard of life, to uproot ignorance and foster education, to instill character, manhood and independent spirit among our people; to bring about a recognition of the interdependence of man upon his fellow man. We aim to establish a normal work-day, to take the children from the factory and workshop and give them the opportunity of the school and the play-ground. In a word, our unions strive to lighten toil, educate their members, make their homes more cheerful, and in every way contribute an earnest effort toward making life the better worth living.”

Specific goals of the American Federation of Labor included:

  • “Job ownership”  – the right to continue to work without being laid off arbitrarily.
  • Immigration curbs to reduce the amount of cheap labor.
  • Relief from technological unemployment.
  • Labor legislation.
  • Collaboration with employers.

If the goals found in these statements sound fairly benign and familiar to us, it is because many of them have long since been codified in federal, state and local law, or have been adopted as standard practice by enlightened American industry. Samuel Gompers’ comments on "a normal work day" and “lightening toil,” for instance, referred to instituting a humane work-week that enabled working people to have a life consisting of more than just work. Most Americans today have no idea that the pre-1900 industrial work-week often consisted of six twelve-hour (or even fourteen-hour) days. Eventually, unions pressed for a standard five-day week of eight-hour days. Much of what American workers today consider their employment “birthright” was actually the product of labor-union activism in the early 20th century. It is good that we not forget that.

Essentially, labor unions were formed to protect the older worker’s employment and the wellbeing of all workers. That most of today’s workers fail to comprehend this is a testimony to the effectiveness of labor unions in having those protections adopted by both industry and government.

But anything – even good things – can go out of control. This has happened with unions during my lifetime. One of my relatives was a union man for 37 years with Bethlehem Steel. Toward the end of his career there, the union had negotiated 13-week vacations for its workers in order to keep the number of workers elevated in a declining industry. Eventually “The Steel” (as locals called it) went bankrupt and closed entirely. Bethlehem Steel, once the country’s second-largest producer of steel, was ruined by poor business decisions, including labor contracts that simply could not be sustained.

A 1959 strike by the steelworkers was particularly disastrous for the industry. Details of the dispute are well-documented, so I won’t recount them here. Ultimately, the four-month strike was ended by the Eisenhower administration’s invocation of the Taft-Hartley Act. The steelworker’s union tried to contest T-H in the Supreme Court, but the attempt failed. The union was forced back to work for a “cooling-off” period, under terms of the Act. A compromise was hammered out in which both union and industry won some concessions. But in the long term the industry was irreparably damaged. For the first time in American history, the door was opened to importation of foreign steel. U. S. industries quickly adjusted, finding the foreign products less costly than American steel, even after accounting for import costs. The steelworkers’ union essentially destroyed their own industry.

In more recent years, unions negotiated contracts with General Motors and Chrysler that ultimately sank those big automobile companies. The union-friendly Obama administration intervened in their bankruptcy proceedings to push union interests to the front of the line, while stiffing holders of over $30 billion in GM and Chrysler bonds. Both companies went under federal control. Unions retained their lucrative contracts, but who knows how long this arrangement can last, once Democrats lose power.

As I pointed out in a previous article, union power has waned in the United States since their heyday in the 1940s and ‘50s. Today, only 11.9% working Americans are union. The share of private-sector union-membership has now fallen to 7.2% (down from 7.6% last year) – the lowest level since 1900. In the public sector, however, union membership is rising. It is now 37.4% (up from 36.8% last year). The chart below indicates that 55% of all union members are now government workers. The bottom line is that the average American is more disconnected from union interests than ever, since only one in six workers is a government employee, and only one worker in sixteen is a unionized government employee.

Total workers

Union %

Union workers









What is happening in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Michigan and a growing list of states with budgetary problems is the product of that disconnection. Well-paid, unionized government workers are noisily demonstrating to retain their pay, benefits and union “rights,” while private citizens making far less are being told to come up with the swag to keep the gravy train rolling. There is absolutely no way this strategy can work. The longer unionized government workers demonstrate, threaten and stay off the job, the farther their stock will fall with the public. When it hits bottom, the result will not be pretty.

Many other writers have analyzed the incestuous relationship between politicians and public-employee unions that has brought the present crisis to a boil. I won’t attempt to recap that situation here. Suffice it to say that it has the makings of an incipient revolution. Just as unions once revolted against a dangerous and oppressive work-environment, the People are now revolting against fiscal oppression by those same unions that have forgotten all about the “common good.” Things cannot remain as they are.



Children working in fabric mills, ca. 1900.