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Do Labor Unions Still Matter?

Patch sits down with historian Richard Grippaldi for a crash course in the history of the American labor movement.

Historically, New Jersey has always had close ties with organized labor.

Peter J. McGuire, one of the founders of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), is interred in nearby Pennsauken, in a cemetery that houses a memorial to his life's work. Teachers and skilled laborers make up two of the most powerful political blocs in the state and have been a visible target of reform legislation during the tenure of Gov. Chris Christie. Heck, for years, teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa was fabled to have been buried beneath Giants Stadium.

But in the years since the U.S. government named Labor Day a national holiday, its roots in the foundation of a political movement have been replaced by its being known as a signifier of the end of summer, the start of the new school year and a return to work after seasonal vacations.

To get a better sense of the historical significance of Labor Day and the lessons it may still hold, Patch asked historian Richard Grippaldi to offer some context in observance of the day. Grippaldi is a part-time history lecturer at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and holds a Ph.D. in American history.

Patch: What can you tell us about the roots of the American labor movement? What motivated workers to first unionize into groups like the AFL-CIO?

Richard Grippaldi: When we talk about labor unions, we kind of lump them together, but those two groups of unions, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) had a real conflict.

In the beginning of the 19th century, before the market revolution hit, a worker had control over two things: his labor and the profit he received from it. Early unionization was as much about trying to protect the skills that the workers had; trying to say that there’s a dignity in work.

The AFL was all about preserving the need for skill in labor. When they look at a factory, yes they think it’s bad that you can stick your hand in a machine and you could lose it, that you shouldn’t be working 12-16 hours a week. What galls the AFL about industrialization is that it boils the skills down to pulling a lever.

What the CIO does, much later, is says somebody has to stand up for people like auto workers, people like steel workers, people for whom there’s not really a traditional craft to rally around. And it’s John L. Lewis and the United Mine Workers who are a big part of the CIO; their willingness to organize just about everybody to say, if you’re a worker, you have a stake in this fight.

Patch: So aside from trying to create safer workplaces, the roots of the movement are entrenched in the workers trying to preserve their connection to their work.

Grippaldi: It’s very much a struggle that says workers have rights; they are human beings. Even if they’re in an industry where their skill is still useful, where a machine cannot replicate what they’re doing, they no longer control the profits. As far as the factory owner is concerned, the price of the product has no linkage to the labor that the worker has put into it.

When you look at the development of the labor movement in the United States from those two angles, that the laborer controlled his labor completely and that the laborer profited completely, it sort of takes on this moral calling: if you don’t work, you don’t eat. Now you can spin that as, “poor people who don’t work don’t eat,” but the labor union would say “the guy who owns the factory didn’t do thing one to produce this shoe, this cigar, this widget, yet he’s eating because I did the work.”

Patch: What do you make of the current marketplace in which so many people are working out of their homes, starting up these little cottage-industry businesses? Don’t we have to be much more entrepreneurial these days, no matter what our career?

Grippaldi: I think it’s a little bit of a return to some of the great themes of American history. When we say Americans have an entrepreneurial spirit, a lot of that has to do with the fact that the first factory owners, the first great merchants, often were working men themselves.

The vagaries of business, just like the vagaries of being a farmer in the 18th century, meant that luck had a hell of a lot to do with it. If you had a shoemaker who accumulates capital a little faster than the next guy and nobody in his family breaks his leg or his hands don’t fall off, then he has the ability to say, “I’m a master shoemaker and I can pay someone to make shoes for me. All I have to do is sell them to people.” When you get to there, the next step is being a merchant, period.

As we enter a post-industrial society, we are really selling services, not necessarily creating goods. That is the transition from “I’m making it myself, I’m selling it myself, I keep all the money,” to “I’m working directly for somebody else, and if somebody gives me too much guff, I’m going to go out on my own.”

And in the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s, there’s such a labor shortage that if your business fails, you chuck it and move west. Today when your company fails or you personally fail, starting over is very, very difficult. Not only was there opportunity all over the place in the mid-19th century, there was no stigma to failing. You didn’t make it here, you can make it somewhere else. The buy-in was very low. Now when a corporation goes under it’s a big deal.

Patch: What about the idea that we don’t need unions any more in this country because Americans don’t manufacture anything here anymore?

Grippaldi: American postwar prosperity was in part fueled by the fact that World War II had destroyed the industrialized economies of Western Europe and Japan. The Soviet Union came through the war OK, but they made it quite clear that they were not interested in trading with the rest of the world. For a lot of the world, you had to come buy it from the U.S. What happens by 1970 is that those [European] countries had finally reached the sort of relative standing they had before the war.

No country that industrializes is ever willing to become a completely post-industrial service economy. The American boom was fueled in good part because there was a serious demand for American exports; stuff you couldn’t get anywhere else. Thanks to things like technology and the Internet, you can build that anywhere. You can ship it anywhere. You don’t have to be here any more.

Sometimes you hear companies argue that the IRS shouldn’t tax things made in other places. That becomes an emotional judgment. When we talk about globalization, just talking about what it allows, it allows you to pick up your business and move where you want to. The American auto plants built in the American South, they’re not unionized. We’ve gotten to a point where we prize manufacturing for any number of reasons. They hire people who don’t have to be super-duper technologically skilled to work in those factories.

Patch: So what impact do the unions still have on the way business is done today?

Grippaldi: Broadly, any improvements in workers’ conditions anywhere come from the labor unions. What’s the old line, “Power concedes nothing”? What they attempted to do was give some kind of voice to the workers. The fact that any of these demands were successful is something that we take for granted, especially in the modern environment where it’s easy, if you’re of a certain political persuasion, to point to unions as the ones mucking up prosperity, etc.

Anything that unions won was not because management doled it out happily because they felt like it that day. Things like minimum-wage laws, basic working condition laws, the eventual creation of a 40-hour work week; even things like benefits.

In World War II when the government capped wages, enterprising labor union leaders went to certain people at these companies and said, “Maybe you can’t give us more money but you can give us a paid vacation. Or maybe you’ll pay for our health care.”

There used to be an idea that the company took an interest in your well-being; the idea that a company was a family. In a time of prosperity that’s a very easy sell. When the company turns around and tells you “We’re giving you this without a union,” why would you unionize?

Then the workers realize during the Great Depression that when the company decides to give you something, they can take it away when they want. The thing that unions did was get them to agree to those gains in writing. Unions work because they are always defending the gains that their workers have, and many times were responsible for getting them.

It’s not literally about the circumstances in which the union operated in 1885. A lot of times when we look at the labor heyday, they are militant, they’re going to stay out until they get what they want and they’re going to pelt scabs with stones.

That’s not what unionism is about; that’s how it’s portrayed. They’re about getting a better deal for their workers and if they have to give something up, getting something in return.

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