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Putting Wisconsin's Union Battle In Historical Context

Republicans in state legislatures of Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio are trying to cut collective bargaining rights for workers in the public sector. A recent New York Times article described these bills as "the largest assault on collective bargaining in recent memory, striking at the heart of an American labor movement that is already atrophied."

On today's Fresh Air, journalist Philip Dray puts the union protests in the Midwest in a historical context. Dray is the author of There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America, which follows the labor movement as it grew out of 19th century uprisings in textile mills. The movement rallied workers around common causes before suffering a series of blows after the failed 1981 air traffic controllers' strike, when more than 12,000 air traffic controllers walked off their jobs. In response, President Reagan said that the striking workers were in violation of the law and would lose their jobs if they did not return to work within 48 hours. When they failed to show up, Reagan fired the workers.

/ Doubleday

"Presidents historically had been somewhat hostile to unions but no one had ever decimated a union completely like that," says Dray. "What Reagan accomplished in response to the air traffic controllers' picketing was to end the taboo associated with crossing a picket line."

Reagan replaced the workers with non-union air traffic controllers, setting a precedent for private industry, says Dray.

"They thought, 'if the president can do this, so can we,' " he says.

But companies have pushed back against organized labor and collective bargaining since the practice was legalized in 1933, says Dray.

"There's always been a lot of pushback and it's taken various forms — from locking employees out, firing people who dared to come forward with grievances [and] the use of labor spies," he says. "During the New Deal, they found that a lot of organizations used hundreds of spies to unsettle union activity. ... In some cases, federal soldiers would be sent in to put down labor disputes. Every city in America has these large brick armories in the city. I used to think they were there for soldiers to gather to go abroad, but those were built in an era when authorities wanted a place where soldiers could gather to bring down local labor unrest."

The Shrinking Union

Overall union membership has shrunk by 80 percent since the mid-1950s. Only 12.3 percent of workers belong to a labor union. Dray attributes the shrinking numbers to increased globalization.

"You see the loss of manufacturing jobs in America," he says. "You can't export the New York subway system to China but you can take the manufacturing jobs from upstate New York and send them there."

Dray also says that shrinking union membership numbers change the way people perceive unions.

"At one time, a lot of people who weren't in unions were nonetheless grateful to them because people understood that the unions had fought for everything they had attained, whether it was the eight-hour day or fire escapes on factory buildings, so I'm sad to see that development," he says. "At the same time, I think it's duplicitous to resent generous pension or health benefits that public service workers have attained, because a lot of these things were negotiated in good faith and a lot of people gave up short-term wages because they were promised generous benefits and retirement. So in a way, it's sad to see this resentment."

Philip Dray is the author of <em>At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America </em>and <em>Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America. </em>
Mindy Tucker / Doubleday
Philip Dray is the author of At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America and Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America.

Interview Highlights

On winning the right to collectively bargain

"It was something that had been in the air for a very long time. It came out of what's known as the Progressive Era, when a lot of people like Louis Brandeis and others saw that too much damage was being done from labor strife. ... There was this impetus for industrial democracy, the idea that [workers'] issues would best be negotiated and resolved so everyone could move on in a productive way."

On shrinking private sector unions

"You don't have area cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago where you had these very tightly knit industrial areas where organizing was easier. You not only had hundreds of workers working in one place but living there and maybe going to the union hall in the evening. [Also] you have technology, which has changed the nature of work itself — eliminating jobs. The unions don't have leverage because they're competing with workers in Indonesia or places where non-unionized or low-paid workers are available."

On the eight-hour workday

"In the mid-19th century, the campaign was for the 10-hour day. There was a campaign to whittle it back. People said, 'We don't have time to buy the products we're making. We don't have time to even become citizens. We don't have time to read the Bible.' So it became a very compelling argument. And the hours argument was one that unions always did fairly well with, even though it took many years to get them in the law books. It was an argument that was hard to refute — that you couldn't keep people working 12 or 13 hours a day and expect them to function in society."

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