US unions: From a tool for workers to a pawn for politicians
Unions in the United States have been through a lot throughout history, and in light of all the catastrophes they underwent, the modern political arena may be one of the biggest woes to have hit them.
Unions have long been championed as a tool to garner the rights of the working people and enhance their living and working conditions, and so far, throughout history, this has been proven correct. However, when the United States and its somewhat-modern populistic inclinations started to affect how unions function, all that changed. When unions became a political pawn in the hands of the elite, the priority was no longer the proletariat; with the latter only becoming the means for the elite to get more power.
Built around the aspect of protecting workers by acting as a united front in the face of capitalists' exploitation of the working man and giving the common workers the bargaining power against their employers in a bid to garner more rights for them, unions have always been by the side of workers, starting in the United States in 1866, decades after the first attempt to kickstart a union, when labor groups came together and created a national federation of labor. Known as the National Labor Union, the organization went on a crusade in light of strenuous circumstances for workers and sought to advance their interests. This very organization led to the reduction of the work day in the United States to eight hours after decades of struggle to decrease the amount of time laborers spent at work, thus giving them more time for leisure and rest.
Broadly speaking, labor unions led workers to have higher wages, safer working conditions, health benefits, better working hours, and things that are now seen as a luxury, such as retirement, benefits upon injuries, and the like, not to mention breaking the shackles of exploitation children were subjected to by bringing an end to child labor.
Despite all the advantages that unions have bore over time, proving to be a tool of great power in the hands of the workers, they seem to have failed to accumulate vast numbers - or at least have failed to maintain the momentum they once had amid faltering "popularity". As of January 2023, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 10.1% of workers in the United States are union members. So why are workers not utilizing this great tool to harness more advantages?
The modern irrelevance of trade unions
Throughout history, labor unions have been associated with the industrial and agricultural sectors, which are known to have been the foundations of nations and empires. Even now, when one recalls major actions taken by unions in the United States, their minds go to the strikes carried out by miners, railroad workers, and postal service workers. Steel and textile workers were also major contributors, with each of these sectors taking hundreds of thousands of workers to the streets to demand better working conditions and higher wages, or an overall demand to eradicate a certain injustice suffered by the workers. However, the US economy is no longer reliant on industry and agriculture. In fact, the United States imports most of its manufactured goods and agricultural goods from abroad, making the sectors that were once the country's backbone nearly obsolete in light of a new sector coming into dominance: the service sector.
Union membership is in decline due to the shift from an industrial economy to a service economy, as workers no longer see themselves as a part of a collective, but rather as individuals, each of whom seeks his own best interests without regard to how collectivization and unity would yield better results on the long-term for workers. In short, a combination of liberalism, individualism, and a shift to a service economy destroyed union membership rates. This was a trend nearly all over the world, as globalization, automation, and the shift from industrial factories saw union membership faltering all over the world, so much so that the workforce in countries as big as the United States saw itself outgrowing union membership, i.e., new workers were less likely to join a union with time as the labor market kept on expanding, leaving unions in the dust of the expanding workforce as more people thought of them as archaic and unnecessary, partly due to the working conditions being acceptable at the time; it was ignored that unions were behind the working conditions in question.
There was a lot of momentum behind unions, especially in the wake of World War II in light of the economic boom that the US witnessed, though unions at the time were by all means reactionary in comparison with today's unions, as they were mainly centered around white men and the sector they occupied at the time: industry. Meanwhile, other industries, such as retail jobs, which were mainly occupied by women at the time, were put to the side and marginalized. The repercussions of the marginalization in question are still felt to this very day, with it still being the case that retail and service jobs are rarely unionized, while industrial jobs are heavily unionized.
The movement was heavily flawed since the beginning, as it did not treat all sectors as equal, leaving the trade behind before the latter became the leading sector in the United States. As of 2021, the agricultural sector contributed around 0.96% to the US Gross Domestic Product, while industry contributed 17.88%. Both these figures are meager when compared with the contribution of the service sector, which is a whopping 77.6% of the US GDP. For the past several decades, these numbers have been fluctuating, but it has been a constant that the service sector is by a landslide the main contributor to the American GDP.
Capitalists seek profits
The post-WWII economic boom did not last long in the United States, and soon after, in the 1970s, a recession that led to stagflation undermined much of the progress that had been made at the time by trade unions. Seeking profits as the economy was collapsing in the country, capitalist business owners sought to undermine unions. Going on a fierce anti-union campaign, the capital holders managed to massively decrease union membership rates. Moreover, stagflation, a period of stagnant growth, high inflation, and high unemployment, was affected by capitalists moving their operations overseas for cheaper labor. This, in turn, led to there being fewer laborers, and thus, fewer union members. Unions were feared because business owners were aware that organization among workers would lead to the latter's victory in any battle they would enter because of the united front they made up together: no worker could be fired unjustly without his colleagues taking to the streets in solidarity with them. Workers' rights were insured by the collective workforce in a select domain, something scarcely seen in the service sector.
This fear culminated in union busting, in the sense that any worker who dares stand up in the face of injustice would be silenced, and anyone who tries to create or lead a union, or even mention it, would be severely punished for their actions with pay cuts, having their hours reduced, threats, and even layouts. In light of all the pressures present, from intense employer resistance and post-war union complacency due to the lack of achievements, as well as the growth and change in the labor market as unions could no longer catch up, the act of organization among employees was no longer as mainstream as it once was, and it kept faltering since, forcing unions to have record-low membership rates.
Union membership also saw a decline due to the actions of the government, as red states, mainly in the south, had less strict labor laws, allowing business owners to go on their merry way busting unions and firing employees left and right for even daring to utter the word organization. This led business owners to heavily concentrate their factories in the south, as they would not get in trouble for taking harsh measures against workers in case they sought to unionize. Blue states were seeing a decline in the industry while red states were having factories pumped into them, and therefore they were seeing an influx of workers from other states who were still seeking job opportunities in light of an economic crisis, which led them to bitterly comply with the injustice employers were subjecting them to.
In addition to the aforementioned obstacles that stood in unions' way, from liberalism and individualism to the unexpected shifts in the dominant economic sectors, one key aspect in the destruction of unions cannot be ignored: US President Ronald Reagan. Reagan is arguably the most controversial President in US history whose policies marginalized and destroyed communities, but this piece is not aimed at shedding light on the wide array of negative policies enacted under Reagan. Therefore, it will only touch on his administration's actions against unions.
The cutthroat market was not going to sit idly and wait for the slow process of negotiations and strikes to yield results and get workers back into factories, thus Mr. trickle-down economics put two options before workers: comply or lose your job.
The Reagan administration took many contentious decisions against workers, including banning them from striking, a decision that was reversed years after he left office. The Reagan era saw the "murder of the US middle class" as The Intercept wrote. The magazine highlighted one major event that comes to mind when one recalls the measures taken by the Reagan administration against the working man.
In late 1981, President Reagan fired 11,345 air traffic controllers for striking before banning them from ever working again for the federal government after they refused an offer made by the government following the faltering of contract talks with the Federal Aviation Administration. Surprisingly, commercial air travel was heavily affected, but it was not paralyzed as was projected by the striking workers, and thus, the Reagan administration laid the groundwork for companies to undermine striking workers after setting such a massive precedent.
Reagan, by his moves to undermine the proletariat, sought to enrich businesses, which he saw as a means of keeping the United States above the rest of the world economically, so he was not going to allow a few thousand workers to get in the way of the US continuing its uphill climb in the international arena.
All the calamities that affected unions under Reagan heavily weakened their standing when it came to any negotiations with capitalists, rendering them incompetent in bettering working conditions, and thus, they grew even less popular.
A populist tool
The United States today has a wide schism between the Republican and Democratic parties, with each group taking a stance merely to up the other and rally those who oppose or support their causes in order to amass more power. In simple terms, the political elite in the US is heavily populist, and they do not even try to hide it. This is the case with unions; they have become a populist tool in the hands of the political elite, with the Republicans saying unions are harmful to the economy and Democrats arguing otherwise and voicing their "support" for workers. However, it seems that Democrats cannot put their money where their mouth is.
In this tug-of-war between the Reds and the Blues, the only loser is the average American that either party is trying to get on its side. Unions, one of the few tools for workers to safeguard themselves, have become a populist tool in the hands of either party, but each in one way. The most malicious approach comes from the Democratic party.
"White liberals are those who have perfected the art of selling themselves to the black man as our ‘friend’ to get our sympathy, our allegiance, and our minds. The white liberal attempts to use us politically against white conservatives, so that anything the black man does is never for his own good, never for his advancement, never for his own progress, he’s only a pawn in the hands of the white liberal" - Malcolm X
The Democrats are the "white liberal" to the unions and workers, who are the "Black man" in this scenario.
Democrat President Joe Biden, who signed in December 2022 a bill to block the railroad union from striking amid demand for better wages and sick leaves in light of massive injustice faced by the workers, claimed days ago that he was the "most pro-union president in American history."
Biden's America, under which unions are trying to reorganize workers in the service sector, in places such as Starbucks and Amazon, is seeing major anti-union practices being taken against workers. "The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency that polices labor-management relations, has accused Starbucks and Amazon of a slew of illegal anti-union practices, among them firing many workers in retaliation for backing a union," The Guardian reported.
According to the NLRB, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy is illegally coercing and intimidating workers by saying they would be "less empowered" if they unionized. Meanwhile, Biden's America is standing idle as workers get treated worse and worse.
Despite promises to raise the minimum wage, the cap has not been raised since the Obama administration despite record-high inflation. Workers are earning less than they were more than a decade ago due to the government's failure to adopt measures to raise the minimum wage, and unions are being complacent because a Democrat administration is in the White House. For the past three years, the inflation rate was 1.7% for 2020, 7% for 2021, and 6.5% for 2022, and workers' wages are yet to see an increase.
The value of labor is depreciating as business owners continue to line their pockets with cash. This is a means for capitalists to amass more money as their rate of profit falls; they are seeking the alternative path of depressing wages below the value of labor power in order to make more of a profit.
The government is supporting unions tongue-in-cheek, and unions are being more than complacent because they will take whatever support they can get, losing touch with the grassroots of their very organization and only caring about amassing more members as numbers falter year after year.
The workers have been abandoned by their unions, and the Democrats are only saying they support unions without actually taking any decisions to show the support in question, for only words are enough in a populist nation, and action is not a requirement. Workers in the United States are stranded, their rights wasted, and their unity a sham due to unions losing touch with workers after being weakened over the years to a degree where they are incapable of making change while claiming otherwise in a bid to uphold an institution that the government doomed to failure decades ago all to try and give false hope to workers that the situation would get better so they would not revolt against the government damning them to slave away for peanuts.
Once progressive organizations aimed at freeing workers, unions today are reactionary, serving the populist elite and allowing it to tighten its grip on laborers.