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Union Wars


The National Destruction Of Organized Labor

By James Donahue

On December 11 the Michigan legislators ignored a demonstration by an estimated 10,000 protesters outside the Capital Building in Lansing and passed a “right-to-work” bill that was signed into law by Governor Rick Snyder before the day was out. It was a malicious strike against the remaining remnants of a once powerful labor movement that had its bloody origins in Michigan dating back more than half a century.

The argument by Snyder and proponents of the bill are that labor unions have outlived their purpose, that the new law gives potential industrial developments the freedom to locate in Michigan without fear of having to deal with organized labor, and thus bring jobs back into Michigan’s financially troubled cities.

Michigan’s actions were part of a nation-wide movement that has been occurring in recent years designed to break the backs of unions. Similar laws have been passed in other states, including Wisconsin which caused political turmoil only last year. The international trade agreements have opened the door for U.S. factories to move overseas in a quest for cheap, non-union labor. This is forcing unemployed and desperate Americans to accept the right-to-work concept in the hope that jobs . . . any jobs . . . will be in their future.

It has been an ugly trick played by wealthy corporations on the working class. Without union support, the jobs that will become available will be no better than slave labor camps offering long hours, no benefits and minimum wages that compete with the wages paid in third world countries.

We visited the big debates raging December 11 on Facebook and dared to remind one Michigan man, who was praising the Snyder move to break the backs of state unions, that it was organized labor that helped bring about child labor laws and gave us higher wages, eight-hour work days, five-day work weeks, paid vacations, paid sick days and paid health insurance benefits. This created a middle-class society in America that resulted from the sharing of the nation’s wealth.

This man responded with a harsh reminder that Henry Ford established a five-day work week and gave workers in his plants good wages because he reasoned, wisely, that his employees should be able to buy the cars they were building. Indeed, Ford did these things. But he did them because he was a wise businessman who knew the value of keeping good workers happy on the job. But Mr. Ford was a known skinflint throughout his life. He had a resort home at Harbor Beach, Michigan, where I grew up. I remember women who worked at the restaurant where Ford ate his meals complaining that they did not like to wait on him because he demanded above average service and never tipped.

We should also be reminded that the Ford sons who followed in their father’s footsteps, were obviously not as “benevolent” as Henry in later years because the Ford Motor Company became a union shop after the United Auto Workers came into existence. My father-in-law who retired from Ford lived on a comfortable retirement pension and the best health insurance plan that money could buy.

Those unions didn’t just happen overnight. It took fierce determination on the part of a lot of workers in a lot of those “sweat shops” of the past to gain the right to collective bargaining in America. They endured long sit-down strikes and bloody clashes with police. The labor movements had their origins in the late 1800s. President Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act into law in 1935.

It is true that the leaders of some of the big labor unions usurped their powers and some believe even got involved in organized crime. Such stories, whether true or not clearly gave a black eye to labor over the years. Such power figures as Jimmy Hoffa, head of the powerful Teamsters, Walter Reuther, President of the United Auto Workers and John L. Lewis, who reigned over the coal workers, were among the union bosses that made screaming headlines in their day. These were powerful figures who wielded a lot of power over the affairs of the nation because they represented the voices of the men and women who built cars, produced the coal and trucked goods from place to place.

Organized labor was clearly an enemy to the big corporate bosses who longed to return to the days of dominion over the armies of slave workers willing to build their products in exchange for low wages and no personal benefits. The Republican Party, which has always represented the capitalistic system has consequently been in league with those corporate bosses in a quest to destroy organized labor. There has been an ongoing battle between the Democratic socialistic concept of government and the Republican capitalistic concept ever since the unions became part of the American way of life.

The scars in this fight are old and they go deep. That Walker and Snyder have had victories in their quest to break the backs of organized labor will not be the end of this fight. Indeed, workers in Mexico, China and Indonesia, now caught up in the old slave system are beginning to rebel against their employers. Over time, we suspect that organized labor will evolve among workers around the globe.