Monday, November 25, 2013

Workers in Labor's Golden Age, 1950-1980

In 1954, union membership as a percentage of the entire US workforce reached an all-time high of almost 35% (although the absolute highest number of union members didn't hit peak until 1979, at 21 million). The Census Bureau declared that by the middle of that decade, the middle class encompassed 60% of the US population. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) merged to form the AFL-CIO, ending two decades of internecine warfare--and leaving much of the business community fretting about the growing power of those they labelled "union bosses." This apparent strength masked weaknesses in the movement, however; coupled with the postwar shift into a "post-industrial" economy, this meant that by the early 1970s, organized labor found that the rug had been pulled out from under them, and they were ill-equipped to deal with the consequences.

To illustrate this, we will look at five discrete events that happened in the 35 years between 1950 and 1985: the 1950 "Treaty of Detroit"; the 1959 Steel Strike; the 1970 General Motors strike; the 1978 Chrysler "bail-out," and the 1981 PATCO strike. These events will illustrate the limits of union power during the era, and how ill-prepared the movement was as the ground shifted beneath their feet.

1950 "Treaty of Detroit"

After attempting to get GM to "open the books" in 1945, UAW president Walter Reuther had been able to solidify his control of the UAW, and obtain ever more generous contracts for his members. Doing so usually necessitated lengthy, annual strikes, which slowed production--much to the frustration of management, who wanted longer contracts that would allow them to project costs into the future. In 1950, Reuther acquiesced on this point. In return for a substantial raise, health care, and a pension plan, GM received agreement for a five-year contract. This contract, in fact, proved to be too long for union tastes, which found itself having to plead for a wage re-opener before the contract was up, because inflation ate away most to of the raise; after 1955,  new contracts were negotiated every three years. But the pattern had been set--in return for generous contracts, management sought stable relations with it workers, and largely got union officials themselves to enforce factory discipline.

To accomplish this, Reuther believed that productivity in factories had to continually improve--which meant that more work had to be done by fewer people. This meant that the union took no action as more machinery moved into factories, and fewer workers were hired to work in these same factories. There is an apocryphal story told about a Ford Motor Company official giving a tour to Reuther of the new Cleveland Engine plant in Brook Park, at the time the most highly-automated foundry in the world. The company official was supposed to have smirked to Reuther, "None of these machines will every pay a dime of union dues." Reuther is alleged to have retorted, "And none will be buying Ford cars, either." Ironically, both men were later proved correct.

1959 Steel Strike

The difficulty and danger of resisting managements' push for greater productivity in perhaps illustrated by the 1959 Steel Strike. The Steelworkers had a clause in their contract that prevented companies from changing the number of workers assigned to any particular job. In contract negotiations that year, this became a real sticking pointAfter a protracted fight, the Steelworkers were able to protect that clause--despite President Eisenhower's invocation of a clause in Taft-Hartley that forced the workers back on the job because of a "national emergency," and losing an attempt to get the Supreme Court to decide the clause unconstitutional. Because of the length of the strike, however, many steel consumers had begun importing steel, which they found cheaper than US-made steel despite shipping costs (because of lower labor costs and government supports that allowed foreign companies to sell steel below their cost) In 1962 contract negotiation, while retaining the clause, Steelworkers' president David McDonald offer not to enforce the clause; by 1965 this stand cost McDonald his position, and dissatisfied rank-and-file member swept an insurgent slate. Despite this mandate from the membership, however, the clause was negotiated away in the next round of contract talks. Despite these concessions, however, US steel manufacturers were unable to regain the ground lost, and the industry continued to spiral downward throughout the 1960s and 1970s, resulting in Black Monday, September 19, 1977 in Youngstown, Ohio.

1970 General Motors Strike

In part because of the level of military spending as a result of the US involvement in the war in Vietnam, a super-heated economy was sending the prices of most consumer goods through the roof (a condition made even worse in the fall of 1973, when an oil embargo doubled the price of gasoline overnight in the country). The response to these greater costs on the part of industry was to seek ever increasing productivity levels from workers, while trying to hold the line on wage increases. Into this situation stepped a new president of the UAW, Leonard Woodcock, who had taken over for Walter Reuther when the latter was killed (with his wife) in a small plane crash. Woodcock was not seen by most as the selected heir to the throne, so with a contract to negotiate, he was under a great deal of pressure to produce something substantive in a difficult situation. As if to increase the pressure on gaining important concessions, Woodcock decided to take on the most powerful of the Detroit Three, General Motors. The result was the longest strike in UAW history, and 113-day walkout that eventually got some important concessions (including a worker favorite--the ability of workers to retire with full benefits after 30 years of service, popularly known as "30-and-out"). But the union was unable to wrest any concessions on so-called "management prerogatives" like staffing levels. How important this was to workers became evident in the period after the contract was signed, when workers walked of the job in a variety of locations in protest of working conditions; perhaps the most famous of these so-called "wildcat strikes" took place in Lordstown, Ohio, where workers engaged in an extended battle with management over a variety of workplace issues.

1978 Chrysler "bail-out"

The fall-out from the oil embargo was particularly difficult for the smallest and weakest of the Detroit 3, the Chrysler Corporation. Plagued by poor management for an extended period, which had soured its relationship with its workers on the shopfloor, by the late 1970s Chrysler was having difficulty convincing its creditors that it would be a viable company into the future. Just the year before, the company had hired a former Ford Motor Company executive named Lee Iococca to head up the company's turnaround effort, which included a new small car known as the "K" car, and something called a "mini-van." Without a line of credit, however, the company would not be able to get these automobiles into production--and creditors were reluctant to lend anymore money to the company without some guarantee of getting their money back. So Chrysler turned to the federal government as its guarantee for these loans (it should be noted that the government would only be responsible for the loans if Chrysler could not make its payments). A Democratic president, along with a Democratically-controlled House of Representatives and Senate, agrees to guarantee the loans for  Chrysler--if its workers agreed to wage and benefit concession. Douglas Fraser (himself a former Chrysler worker), reluctantly agreed to this--if he was given a seat on the Chrysler Board of Directors. In order to get the guarantees, Chrysler agreed to this stipulation. Initially hailed as a new, innovative approach to employer/employee relations, within three years Fraser resigned from the board, and denounced the agreement. In part, this was because during the next round of negotiations, both General Motors and Ford asked for similar concessions from the UAW in order to remain "competitive" with their smaller, weaker rival. Thus the downward spiral of concessionary bargaining began, as companies threatened to move production without ever more concession from their workers.

1981 PATCO Strike

Dissatisfied with Federal Aeronautic Administration (FAA) policies toward air traffic controllers, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) endorsed Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election, particularly after Reagan endorsed the union's side in their dispute with the FAA. If the union officials were expecting better labor relations with officials from a Reagan administration, those expectations were crushed in August 1981. When PATCO officials authorized an illegal strike (federal employees, even those who belong to unions, are forbidden by law to strike). Reagan invoked Taft-Hartley, and gave workers 48 hours to return--or he threatened to fire them all. PATCO members, convinced the air traffic system would fall apart without them, called Reagan's bluff. Only it wasn't a bluff. Reagan fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers, and forbid them from re-applying for their positions (this was eventually rescinded by Bill Clinton). By cutting flights in half and using supervisors and military personnel to scab (replace those fired)--and by avoiding any major accidents (although there were a number of unpublicized close calls), Reagan was able to ride out the storm over these actions--and embolden private industry to follow his wake.


I argue that, in part, the difficulties that labor faces today are a result of those factors that gave the movement its greatest strengths in the 20th century. When the labor movement was revitalized in the 1930s, it was in part because government actively assisted the labor movement by creating apparatus to facilitate labor organizing. These efforts were assisted by the economic conditions of the time, which severely tested people's faith in the capitalist system, and made those who challenged that system more likely to be listened to.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Flint Sit-Down Strike and the Rise of the CIO

The video shown in class Monday is Sit-Down and Fight: Walter Reuther and the UAW. Material below will supplement the viewing of that video.

The Rise of the CIO – initially these letters stood for the Committee for Industrial Organization; after the break away from the AFL, the organization became known as the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

A) Formed in the fall of 1935 – by unionists inside the AFL who believed that unions had to begin organizing workers by industry to begin combating the economic clout of large corporations.

1) John L. Lewis – president of the UMW; to this point Lewis was an autocratic leader (and he remained that in the UMW). Lewis’ change of heart was probably dictated by his unions inability to organize “captive” mines—that is, the mines owned by the steel companies.

(a) Communist organizers – Lewis utilized numerous Communist and Socialist organizers in his drive, mainly because of their superior organizing results. When asked if he were concerned that these organizers might persuade workers to join these other organization, Lewis replied, “Who gets the pheasant, the dog or the hunter?”

B) Flint Sit-Down Strike (1936-1937) – in many ways, this strike was the defining moment for the early CIO, and certainly for the fledgling United Automobile Workers (UAW).

1) GM employed 80% of the Flint workforce at this time, either directly or indirectly, so the economic impact of the company on the community was huge, and the corporation could usually rely upon city government to be compliant with their wishes.

2) GM workers began strikes around the country in November and December of 1936.

(a) Toledo GM workers – had successfully struck the Chevrolet Transmission plant on Central Avenue in the spring of 1935, with hardly any violence; many Toledo union members had advocated asking other GM workers to go out on strike as well—in fact, a caravan drove to Flint. The AFL representative actively discouraged this action, however. The corporation responded by pulling out half the machinery in the plant over a Thanksgiving lay over, with a resultant loss in jobs.

(b) UAW plan – the leadership of the union planned to strike Fisher Body plants in Cleveland and Flint after the start of the year, when workers received a bonus from the corporation, and more labor-friendly administrations took office in Ohio and Michigan

3) The Sit-Down Strike – this tactic allowed a militant minority to shape events; by occupying the building, workers were able to ensure that their would be no scab replacements—and that the threat of attacks on the workers would be minimized because they were inside with all of the expensive machinery.

(a) First utilized in Akron – this tactic was first used by tire workers in Akron, even if Flint workers get most of the credit.

(b) Battle of Running Bulls (January 11, 1937)

(c) Workers seizure of Chevrolet Plant #2 forced GM to bargaining table.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

The Early 20th Century Rise and Fall of the Labor Movement

I)      I.             The Expansion of the AFL

A. Wilson Administration--Woodrow Wilson's administration courted the support of labor, particularly in his campaign for a second term. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Wilson became the first sitting president to address a convention of the AFL

1. Creation of the Department of Labor--in 1913, Woodrow Wilson created the cabinet-level position of Secretary of Labor, and appointed former United Mine Workers union official William B. Wilson (no relation) as the first secretary.

2. Clayton Act--although it fell far short of being "labor's Magna Carta" that it was proclaimed by Samuel Gompers, the Clayton Act was intended to limit the power of the courts to use the Sherman Anti-Trust Act against labor strikes, since the legislation exempted labor unions from prosecution under the anti-trust law.

2. Commission on Industrial Relations (1915)--reported that much of the labor unrest of the previous two decades was due to the refusal of management to bargain collectively with unions.

4. Adamson Act (1916)--gave railroad workers the right to bargain collectively, as well as setting the eight hour day as the standard work day, with overtime pay guaranteed for any time worked over that eight hours.

B. Wartime Labor Conditions

1. End of European Immigration--the outbreak of hostilities in Europe largely ended immigration from the continent to the United States, since immigrants were now needed by their homelands for manufacturing war goods and cannon fodder. The danger of transatlantic travel during wartime also deterred immigration.

2. Economic Expansion--although the outbreak of war in Europe initially caused a brief recession in the United States, by 1915 the demand for war goods from Europe was largely responsible for an economic boom, because US companies were relied upon to provide these goods.

1.US job market--the lack of European immigrants meant that companies could no longer use the immigrants transitory status--and willingness to work for less--to keep wages depressed. Employers also had to increase their recruitment efforts within the United States.

2. Internal Migration--the economic expansion encouraged a great number of Americans to move from their rural homes--North and especially South--to industrial urban centers in the North

II. Industrial Democracy

A)     Definition – actually, there is no one definition of industrial democracy—it meant different things to different people.  To workers, it meant that they would have a say in how a factory or other kind of business would be run.  To owners of the factories and businesses, it meant that for the duration of the war they would tolerate government interference in the running of their business, in return for guaranteed profits—but only to the end of the war.

B)     A. Different views of Industrial Democracy

1)      1. Americanization programs – largely under the control of the capitalist class, intended to make workers think and act like “Americans.”

(a)    a. Banishment of German language newspapers – distribution of German language material through the mail was banished in 1917, which effectively ended the large German press in the United States.

(b)   2Company-sponsored programs

(i)                  a. Ford Motor Company – in the period just before the war, Ford introduced his famous “Five Dollars a Day” program, which he proposed to pay workers in his factories five dollars a day (about twice the then going rate for factory workers).  To qualify, workers had to pass inspection from the Ford Social Department, who ensured that workers were living frugally and would not dissipate the salary that they were to receive.  Immigrant workers, in addition to this, were also required to attend language classes if they did not speak English, and were lectured on work habits, personal hygiene, and table manners; they were also encouraged to move out of ethnic neighborhoods, and not to take in borders.

(c)   b.  Loyalty organizations – groups like the American Protective League were formed by natives born to enforce their vision of Americanization upon the foreign born, as well as other natives who did not fit their vision of proper conduct.

(d)   Restrictions on immigration – although the numbers of immigrants was not restricted by law until 1924, and the effect of that law did not come into effect until 1929 (when, due to the world-wide depression, immigration would have fallen off, anyway), restrictions were placed upon immigration before that time period.
(i)                  Literacy test – immigrants had to prove that they could read and write in their native language—a law the AFL staunchly supported.  The law was passed by Congress over President Wilson’s veto

2)      B. Industrial democracy for working people.

(a)    1. Labor as a partner in society – the symbolic importance of the positions that AFL president Samuel Gompers held should not be discounted in importance; this gave the working people that he represented (the single largest group, and growing during this time period) the impression that they finally had some influence in government.

(b)   2. Success of labor actions – with sympathetic members sitting on the War Labor Board, which was charged with adjudicating labor disputes, labor unions increasingly won recognition from companies, and modest wage increases for the workers they represented (which companies could afford to grant because many of them operated with “cost-plus” contracts from the Federal Government—which meant that the companies were guaranteed a certain level of profit).

II)                 a. Reaction to Industrial Democracy – after the signing of the Armistice, companies in the United States moved to rescind many of the agreements that had been reached during the war years.

A)    3. 1919 Strike wave

1)      a. Seattle General Strike – a strike instigated by the International Associations of Machinists, who represented shipbuilding workers in the city.  Eventually, most workers in the city joined the machinists on strike, and a workers’ strike committee ended up running the city for three days—providing law enforcement, food distribution, and other essential services.

2)      b. Rossford Ford Plate Glass strike – led by the IWW, began the same time as the Willys-Overland strike; strike leaders were swiftly arrested, and carted off to Wood County county seat Bowling Green (with the assistance of a number of volunteer deputies recruited from the normal college there), where they were held largely incommunicado.  Catholic school children were told that there parents would be excommunicated from church if they attended a strike rally in Toledo; management in the factory armed and deputized by county; after several weeks, with the assistance of strikebreakers, strike defeated.

3)      c. Willys-Overland strike – Willys attempted to unilaterally impose a wage cut on workers; offered a profit-sharing scheme to workers, which was rejected.   When wage cut imposed anyway (in the form of a longer work day with no increase in wage), many workers walk off job at normal quitting time; workers are fired, and strike called.  Workers from Lagrange Street area board west-bound streetcars on Central, all workers who cannot produce a Chevrolet work badge are made to get off the streetcar.  Strikebreakers are hired, and housed within the company compound; strikers surround compound.  Sweeping injunction granted after North Carolina auto dealer claims business adversely effected.

4)      d. Steel strike – AFL made concerted attempt to organize steel workers during the war, and this attempt continued during period just after the war.  Most success occurred in the area around Chicago, and result encouraged attempts to organize workers in the Pittsburgh area.  Leadership of this drive was given to former Wobbly William Z. Foster, who had headed up a similar drive on the behalf of the Chicago Federation of Labor and the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butchers to organize packinghouse workers in Chicago area.  Steel companies refused to negotiate; used Foster’s syndicalist past to discredit him, and eventually crush the strike.

5)      e. Boston Police Strike – walkout of the Boston Police force led to several nights of general lawlessness, although property damage was fairly minimal. The governor of Massachusetts, Calvin Coolidge ordered the firing of the entire police force, and mobilized the state militia to police the city.  This strike, perhaps more than any of the other of the hundreds that occurred, scared those in power most.

B)     4. Reaction of governing elite

1)      a. Red Scare – led by US Attorney General (and Presidential wannabee) A. Mitchell Palmer, a nationwide coordinated attack against known and suspected radicals took place in early January 1920, when hundreds were arrested, with a suspension of the rights of habeous corpus; some of those arrested are deported on minor violations; some of those who were American citizens—like Big Bill Haywood—jumped bail and left the country (Haywood fled to the Soviet Union, and is buried in the wall of the Kremlin).

2)      b. Institution of the “American Plan” – this plan was part carrot, and part stick.  While unions were unwanted in the workplace, in many factories the indiscriminate powers of the foreman were curtailed, and powers to hire and fire were given instead to newly instituted personnel departments.

(a)    c. Power of foremen curtailed
(b)   Institution of personnel departments
(c)    Grievance procedures
(d)   Profit-sharing and stock options plans
(e)    No collective bargaining, however

1)      Fordism – Ford’s contribution to the automotive industry was his drive to reduce the cost of the automobile, so that it would become more widely accessible to the general public; Ford accomplished this by increasing the number of specialized machines used to create parts for the automobile.  This had two advantages: it decreased his reliance upon skilled workers, who could demand higher wages; and it allowed him to set a specific pace of manufacturing, rather than letting the workers set their own pace

(a)    Model T – extremely limited choice (it came with no options, and in one color—black), but this allowed Ford to perfect its manufacture—which in turn allowed Ford to drop the price of the automobile from $950 when it was introduced in 1909 to $290 at the height of its popularity in 1924

(b)   $5 a Day – the famous $5/day wage, instituted in 1914, was approached by few workers, but it helped limit the turnover of 300%; the higher overall wage also allowed workers to purchase the product that they were manufacturing (analogy to Bush directives for Americans to do their “patriotic duty” and purchase stuff in reaction to Sept. 11)

(c)    Increased mobility – ownership of an automobile allowed many more people to move to the suburbs (or “into the country’); also created a greater demand for recreation—along with more workers employed in routinized labor.

2)      Sloanism – named after the President of the General Motors Corporation, Alfred P. Sloan.  Sloanism is in many ways the perfection of Fordism; automobiles were provided in a variety of styles (kind of), and a variety of price ranges

(a)    Creation of the General Motors Acceptance Corporation – GMAC created in order to provide financing for potential automobile purchasers who could not pay cash for an automobile.

(b)   Triumph of Sloanism – by 1927, falling sales of the Model T forces Ford to shut down production, and re-tool for the production of the Model A.  In 1924, Ford had commanded 55% of the new car market.

(c)    Increased importance of advertising – used to help people differentiate between largely undifferentiated products; advertising allowed companies to manufacture desires in their customers.

III. The Strikes of the 1920s

A. Coal Mining

1. Battle of Matewan

2. Battle of Blair Mountain--after the events at Matewan, the UMW called on miners and other union members to assemble in West Virginia, armed, to ensure the safety of union miners in the state. Some 10,000 to 15,00 men answered the call, and marched south to Mingo County, where they took part in the largest armed insurrection in the United States since the Civil War.

B. Railroad Industry

1. 1922 Railroad Shopmen's Strike--when the Rail Board approved a 7 cent an hour wage reduction, shopmen voted to go out on strike. The railroads were able to hire enough strikebreakers to fill about three-fourths of the positions; this provoked a violent response from strikers, who attempted to intimidate strikebreakers to stop them from taking their jobs; this in turn brought forth the full police force of the government.

C. Textile Industry

1. 1929 Gastonia Strike--although textile manufacturers had moved South to avoid labor confrontations, working conditions in the mills provoked workers in Gastonia, North Carolina, to attempt to unionize in 1929. Led by members of the Communist Party, the strike provoked violence from both mill owners and local government. After the headquarters of the National Textile Workers Union (NTWU) in Gastonia was attacked, and striking workers evicted from their company-owned homes, a tent city was erected on the outskirts of town, guarded by armed strikers. When the sheriff showed up to demand the strikers turn over their guns, an altercation occurred and the sheriff and several miners were killed. Eight miners were charged with murder, and convicted on rather flimsy evidence--thus breaking the strike.