Artvoice: Buffalo's #1 Newsweekly
Home Blogs Web Features Calendar Listings Artvoice TV Real Estate Classifieds Contact
Previous story: Scorecard: The Week's Winners and Losers
Next story: A Night of Street Art at The Vault

Love Labor? Lost?

Historians discuss the bold past, precarious present, and unclear future of the country’s labor unions

If Buffalo and Erie County Library director Bridget Quinn-Carey felt any sense of irony as she welcomed an audience of 45-50 people to a forum on organized labor in the Central Library’s auditorium last Thursday, she didn’t signal it. The soon-to-depart (for New York City) Quinn-Carey has been presiding over a serious reduction in employment, services, operating hours, and materials for several months. But her brief remarks were blandly generic, and she departed before the program got going.

The panel discussion was moderated by University at Buffalo historian Michael Frisch, who noted that it had been planned long before the current national controversy over public unions had developed. (He seemed a little uncertain about whether he should describe this coincidence as fortuitous.) Frisch drew the obvious connections with the American labor strife of the 1930s, when the labor movement achieved legal and social legitimacy. That legitimacy is under severe attacks today, and Wisconsin is the rallying point for the forces behind them.

There, recently elected Republican Governor Scott Walker is attempting to revoke state and local governments’ obligation to recognize public sector union bargaining rights. Walker has framed his campaign as necessary for any possible remedy for his state’s looming budget deficit. Even after public unions indicated they would agree to proposed cutbacks in health and retirement benefits, Walker continued to insist on the union-busting limitations. “It’s not about the unions,” he declaimed incongruously. “It’s about balancing the budget.” Wisconsin is hardly the only state battleground. Official and quasi-populist campaigns to impose similar restrictions are underway in Ohio, Indiana, and Tennessee.

Several of the discussants at the library’s forum last week addressed the historical context of this widening effort to roll back unions’ effectiveness and status. Alex Blair, a labor history instructor at Buffalo State College, recalled how, in 1932, on the eve of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s establishment of union organization protections, chiefly via the Wagner Act, Erie County voted for Herbert Hoover over Roosevelt. It was the only one of 32 industrial metropolitan areas to bring in that result.

Todd Hobler, vice president of Service Employees International Union local 1199, reminded listeners that it wasn’t until the 1960s that public health care workers in New York State got the right to organize and bargain. (In fact, Wisconsin was the first state, in 1959, to legislate collective bargaining rights for public employees. It was only in 1962 that President John F. Kennedy allowed federal employees to unionize.) Daniel Walkowitz, a prominent New York University labor historian, noted there has always been a significant strain of antipathy to organized labor in this country, dating back 200 years.

Labor unions, private and public sector, do seem to be in increasing jeopardy. Thirty years ago, they represented about a quarter of the American workforce. Today, estimates place their membership at 10-11 percent of American employees. Their decline has been precipitated and pushed by a set of related movements: the widespread use of replacement workers when unions stuck, a very rare occurrence now; the movement of jobs to states with union-restricting, so-called “right-to-work” laws and to foreign countries; the dismantling of this country’s industrial sector, and the unions in it. (Buffalo is a bleak example of the urban detritus that resulted from these trends.)

Walkowitz summarized another, more subjective causal factor: the individual and social circumstances that move Americans to mistrust and reject unionization. “Everyone thinks they’re middle class,” he said, and socially superior to the mere shop-floor and assembly-line workers popularly associated with labor unions. Also, he observed, Americans operate mentally with a consumerist mindset that encourages a bogus individuality. (It’s also a mindset encouraged by some of the corporate leaders who resist unions.) “These are increasingly anomic times,” Walkowitz said, “in which we live in MySpace, and in airbuds.”

One striking aspect of labor’s present predicament is the roughly parallel deterioration in the economic condition of all those “middle-class” Americans. Wages and salaries have stagnated or declined over the last decade or so. The income and wealth gaps between the wealthiest and most American have widened (the International Monetary Fund lists this country as having the third highest degree of income inequality among 33 “advanced” countries). Poverty—particularly among children—has increased significantly.

The blatancy of the attack on public sector unions is striking too. Politicians like Wisconsin’s Walker and Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, whatever their cover stories, are determined to uproot union protections of state employees—including over safety and arbitrary disciplinary measures. It’s not just their hammering on an ideological wedge by falsely claiming public employees are better and unfairly compensated in comparison to other workers. It’s their repeated invocation of the states’ fiscal crises as the result of union compensation. It’s like a dictatorship’s big-lie technique. States with no union bargaining rights are, on average, no better off fiscally than those, like New York, with such worker protection. And some, like Texas and North Carolina, are in worse shape.

At the outset of last Thursday’s discussion, Frisch warned that history can’t be recreated. “The past is an anchor,” as well as an inspiration, he said. But Walkowitz says that the very nature of historical change may contain hope for the future. The momentous current events in North Africa and the Middle East—“People taking control of their lives,” as he described it—show the unpredictability of human history, and the unexpected welling up of hopeful change.

george sax

blog comments powered by Disqus