In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) that legalized the right of workers to form unions, negotiate contracts and conduct job actions. It also recognized the importance of “union shops” where all workers shared the cost of maintaining their union. The President made a point of signing the NLRA (also known as the Wagner Act) in the port city of Tacoma, on July 5. That date, recognized then and now as “Bloody Thursday,” honored waterfront workers killed during the West Coast waterfront strike that gave rise to today’s ILWU.
Some workers were excluded
The new law helped millions join unions and improve working conditions during the next three decades – and created a more secure working class that was eventually called “middle class” by those who were uncomfortable talking about working class power. But the NLRA also excluded large numbers of workers in order to win enough votes to pass Congress where racist Southern legislators demanded the exclusion of farm workers, domestic workers and public employees. To this day, those three classes of workers lack the same federal protections that once protected most private-sector workers. Today those protections have been greatly weakened by big business, but until recently, they allowed millions of workers to join unions
Business lost the first 4 rounds
Business owners who hated labor unions and President Roosevelt were furious when the NLRA passed in 1935. They sued to overturn the law in federal court and tried to block unions from collecting dues from everyone in union shops. In 1937, the Supreme Court sided with workers by allowing the NLRA to remain in place and confirmed the right of unions to collect fees from everyone in a union shop. In just two years following major strikes in 1934 and organizing by longshore, auto, steel and other workers, at least four dramatic victories had been secured: passage of the NLRA plus two victories in the Supreme Court, and passage of the Social Security Act that passed in 1935.
Excluded, but they organized
While private-sector workers were organizing during the 1930’s and three decades that followed, workers on farms, government jobs and private households continued to struggle on their own, forming unions occasionally when they could, but receiving little or no protection from the federal government.
In Hawaii, the ILWU made history with successful campaigns beginning in the early 1940’s that eventually organized the island’s sugar and pineapple workers on a mass scale, enabling them to become the highest-paid agricultural workers in America.
Labor activists helped farm workers organize powerful strikes and some unions during the 1930’s in California’s Central Valley, Salinas Valley, Imperial Valley and in eastern Washington State. Workers there continued organizing job actions throughout the 1960’s and beyond when the United Farmworkers Union passed the first farm labor law in the country in 1975 that allowed farm workers to organize unions in California.
In Southern states, activists helped tenant farmers and sharecroppers build unions during the 1930’s, helping both African-American and white farm workers to loosen the grip of debt and abuse that forced many families to live in virtual slavery since the Civil War.
Domestic workers, including many African American women, also organized in the 1930’s with assistance from activists including Ella Baker, who described street corners in Manhattan and the Bronx as modern day “slave markets,” where women gathered each morning for a daily “shape-up.” Like longshore workers, they organized, and eventually forced New York’s Mayor La Guardia to create hiring halls with regulations that improved conditions for many.
In recent times, new organizing efforts by domestic workers have passed new domestic labor laws in eight states, including California, Oregon and Hawaii.
Public workers form unions
Public employees were inspired during the 1930’s by gains made by private sector workers inside factories and warehouses. Some of the first public workers to form unions were postal workers and teachers concerned about pay, benefits and working conditions – but also about abusive politicians who encouraged bribery to determine pay and job assignments instead of civil service.
Public unions grow in 1960’s
Public sector unions saw relatively little growth until the 1960’s when large numbers began joining unions and demanding the right to become legal and bargain contracts. During the next 30 years, organizing continued on a large scale as teachers, firemen, ferry workers, police, security and prison guards, road repair, water and sewer workers, planners, librarians and others joined public unions. By the year 2000 the number of public sector union members equaled private sector union members – while private-sector union members declined to today’s level – just 6% of the workforce.
Good news and bad news
As pubic unions successfully organized for better wages and benefits in the 1960’s and beyond, they first tried to catch-up with better paying jobs in the private sector that had risen because of union pressure. Workers also correctly noted that most public employees received no Social Security (another exclusion granted to conservatives in 1935 when the Social Security Act was passed by Congress), so demands for a secure retirement were addressed with defined-benefit pensions approved by politicians in charge of school districts, cities, counties and state governments. Within a decade or so, public wage increases and benefits began to surpass what private sector workers were able to bargain because their unions were growing weaker.
At the same time, capitalists were shifting investment to the nonunion south and overseas, part of the “de-industrialization” and offshoring that still haunts much of middle America. Inflation also increased during the 1970’s because of massive spending for the war in Vietnam, along with funding for healthcare, education Medicare and other important programs.
Fear increased among workers and pensioners that they were falling behind and might lose their homes – especially in California where property taxes kept rising to pay for the growing public sector, which accounted for one in six jobs in the Golden State.
These factors – including the different fortunes of public and private sector union members – created dangerous divisions within the working class that were ripe for exploitation by right-wing politicians who used the opportunity to harvest votes by turning public and private sector union members – and the large non-union working class – against each other.
Division & conquest
One of the first high-profile battles for the heart and soul of America’s divided working class was fought and lost in California over Proposition 13. The property tax cap was the brainchild of two rightwing extremists; Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, who called their plan to freeze property taxes, “the People’s Initiative.” The measure passed by almost 2-1 despite strong opposition from public sector unions and most politicians. The following year, Paul Gann passed another initiative to severely limit government spending and punish public union members. Politicians were terrified by the popular support for both initiatives, and some, including Jerry Brown, reversed course to support Paul Gann and become a self-proclaimed “fiscal conservative.”
Union-friendly politicians, meanwhile, tried to maintain loyalty to both private and public sector union members. But private sector members were increasingly anxious about their falling wages, rising taxes and dim prospects – while public sector members continued to push for as much as they could win at the bargaining table – not always appreciating that their “employers” included many increasingly anxious members of the working class who were being lured with appeals to “cut taxes” and vote against “greedy unions.”
As this conflict brewed, the fiscal crisis grew worse because the public sector kept growing in response to demands for education, health care and services to help more families living in poverty.
Wisconsin and beyond
The culmination of these forces were on full view in Wisconsin during 2010, when voters transformed the state from a union and Democratic Party stronghold, to a state that elected anti-union Governor Scott Walker. After winning, Walker stripped collective bargaining rights from public employees, triggering massive protests and support from ILWU members who travelled there to show their solidarity. But Walker defeated a recall election in 2012 and was reelected in 2014. Similarly, House Speaker Paul Ryan has consistently won his swing district that once included many industrial union members before the jobs left when capitalists closed plants in search of cheaper labor. Similar changes have taken place recently in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and other states where current and former union members were once a powerful progressive block, but now increasingly vote for anti-union politicians who support tax cuts, de-regulation, low wages, “right-to-work” and other antiunion laws. The final insult to union solidarity came with the election of Donald Trump who had a long record of anti-union behavior that many current and former union members overlooked while accepting his promises to restore jobs and power for the working class – then flipping to embrace Wall Street and the one-percent after winning the election.
Business dream of “right to work”
The Supreme Court is now poised to outlaw the right of public unions to collect representation fees in “union shops,” and impose “right-to-work” laws on all public union members.
This reversal marks the fulfillment of a dream going back to the 1930’s when Southern segregationists first peddled the idea of “right-to-work” as part of a strategy to thwart unions, stop “race-mixing” in workplaces, and block racial minorities from gaining their fair share of power and respect in society.
Trump backs anti-union case
On December 6, Trump administration lawyers in the Justice Department filed a “friend of the court” brief backing the Janus case against union members.