Before Wisconsin: Five of American Labor's Biggest Battles

Labor union rally in New JerseyLabor unions have an image problem. Once seen as the staunch defender of America's most helpless workers, they've begun to appear bloated and unwieldy a force more bent on robbing the general public than on helping its members. Recently, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie succinctly summarized the general perception of unions, arguing that they are "Trying to break the middle class."

While it's been building for a while, this image problem hit a major milestone in 2009: For the first time in the more than 70 years that Gallup has been measuring the popularity of unions, more than half the public didn't approve of them. So, it isn't hard to see why Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker felt comfortable drawing the line against his state's public employees. And it's hardly surprising that other states began to talk of following suit.

Some governors have since softened their rhetoric about unions, but the Walker-Wisconsin battle seems likely to become a watershed moment in the relationships between state employees and the governments that pay them. With that in mind, here are five other battles that changed the relationship between unions and the rest of the country:

Pullman Cars: The Government Breaks a Strike

In the late 1800s, a brutal depression sent unemployment soaring over 18% as companies slashed wages and fired workers by the thousands. At one company, Pullman Palace Car Co. in Illinois, workers lived in Pullman-owned housing, sent their kids to Pullman-owned schools and bought food in Pullman-owned stores. But when the company cut wages and didn't reduce rents, it left thousands of employees unable to support themselves. Despite repeated requests, George Pullman, the company president, refused to meet with union representatives.

On May 11, 1894, 3,000 Pullman employees went on strike and were soon joined by an estimated 250,000 rail workers across 27 states. As rail traffic west of Chicago ground to a halt, President Grover Cleveland stepped in: Citing the threat to America's mail delivery, he sent 12,000 troops to the Pullman factory to break the strike. Within days, 13 workers were killed, 57 were wounded -- and Pullman's workers were back on the job.

Soon afterward, President Cleveland made Labor Day into a national holiday, but his attempt to soothe the hurt feelings of America's workers didn't work. Facing an angry populace, he decided not to run for a third term and left office in 1897. Later the same year, George Pullman died. Afraid that his body would be desecrated by angry employees, he had himself buried in a solid block of concrete.

1946 Strikes: Returning Servicemen Go to War. . .Against Industry

After World War II ended, millions of returning soldiers discovered that the industrial jobs they were looking forward to came with low wages, dangerous conditions and corrupt bosses. In the year after the war ended, more than 5 million workers responded by going on strike, starting with 268,000 packinghouse workers who walked off the job in January 1946. Within a week, 750,000 steelworkers joined them in the largest single strike in American history. Over the course of the year, workers from General Electric, coal miners, oil workers, Hawaiian sugar workers and the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team all went on strike, and railroad engineers threatened to follow suit.

Alarmed by what it saw as an increasingly radical and uncontrollable labor force, Congress gave President Truman emergency powers to break strikes. In the following year, the lawmakers went one better, passing the Taft-Hartley Act. That law barred several types of strikes and boycotts, limited the types of people who could run unions and paved the way for anti-union legislation in so-called "right to work" states. The bill's greatest impact, however, was that it enabled the president to legally break strikes that "imperiled the national health or safety."

Air Traffic Controllers: The President Fires 11,345 Workers

While private unions are legally allowed to strike, public unions are not. Because of this, the professional air-traffic controllers' organization, PATCO, had to stage slowdowns and "sick-outs" to drive the government to the bargaining table. In 1970, 2,000 controllers called in sick. Although they were later forced to return to work, they were able to negotiate higher salaries, more hirings and the reopening of the national air-traffic training academy.

Eleven years later, PATCO staged a full-fledged strike, demanding higher wages and a shorter work weak. Citing Taft-Hartley, President Ronald Reagan ordered them back to work, but only 10% of the more than 13,000 controllers crossed the picket lines. Two days after the strike began, Reagan fired the striking controllers and barred them from federal service for life. It took almost a decade for air-traffic controller staff numbers to rebound to pre-strike levels. More important, Reagan set a precedent for breaking public union strikes.

1970 Postal Workers Strike: Sometimes the Unions Win

Taft-Hartley aside, it isn't surprising that PATCO thought it could go on strike. Just over a decade earlier, another public union strike had successfully driven the government to the negotiation table. In 1970, citing low wages, hazardous workplace environments and a poorly run organization, U.S. Postal Service workers staged the first national postage strike in U.S. history. Demanding the right to collectively bargain, more than 210,000 became involved.

President Richard Nixon deployed 24,000 members of the military to help move the mail while Labor Secretary William Usery Jr. negotiated with the strikers. Two weeks after the strike began, it was resolved in the union's favor: Post office employees had a new contract and had won the legal right to negotiate. Not long after, the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 was passed, resolving many of their problems with the bureaucratic morass of the Post Office.

Divide and Conquer: Pitting Workers Against Workers

Since the '80s, membership in private sector unions has dwindled from 23% of workers to less than 8%, while public union membership has remained nearly constant at 40% of eligible public employees. Not surprisingly, this has led to a gap between the benefits enjoyed by public and private workers. While outsourcing, right-to-work laws and Taft-Hartley have whittled away at the standard of living for many employees of private companies, public employees have been treading water, continuing to enjoy benefits that were once considered standard but which now seem almost extravagant.

In this context, it's easy to see why public employee unions are getting a bad rap: Once regarded as low paid-workers who traded job security for monetary rewards, teachers and other state employees are now widely regarded as lazy and pampered workers who can't be fired. New Jersey Governor Christie stoked this perception, and pitted teachers against other workers when he said: "There can no longer be two classes of citizens -- one that receives the rich health and pension benefits, and the rest who are left to pay for them."

Governor Christie's rhetoric aside, it's worth noting that the average public union employee makes about 6% less than a comparable worker in the private sector. For that matter, some analysts have argued that public service unions help private sector workers because employers often compete on wages and benefits with union shops in order to discourage union organizing in their companies.

Given that, it's worth asking if erasing the collective bargaining rights of public unions will benefit the middle class -- or eliminate one of the forces that's helping it stay afloat.

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I think that underneath a lot of the ideological and political talk, most people in this country have the same concerns. A job that pays enough to live at least a decent standard of living, (not talking about luxuries), a reasonable measure of job security, decent health care, education for ones children, the ability to make it through one's working life and have a decent retirement. I think these are reasonable objectives for our time and that people living in America in the 21st century should have these things. For the most part, those have been the objectives of both unionized and non-unionized working people.

February 28 2011 at 12:35 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Unions do nothing for members but agreat deal for Union leaders. How did Trumpka who was involved with the United Mine workers who killed a man, but couldn't be proved get into the AFL0CIO and then brags about his white House contacts and nobody is asking how is this possible.

February 28 2011 at 11:00 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Mike. It is past your bedtime bud. It is past time for your meds too. You will feel better when you start getting paid what your worth. Of course, I pray your not paid for your opinion, you will go broke.....

February 28 2011 at 12:47 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

(Gov Walker tape, thought he was talking to billionaire Koch) tells how he wants to "cause harm to the peaceful protesters", is uncalled for and should have him thrown in jail for conspiracy to harm his Wisconsin citizens. I would not be suprised at hearing of such a conspiracy among the followers of Lybia's dictator but to hear it from Wisconsin's newly appointed Gov. Walker's own mouth, is beyond me! Walker said he conspires with Ohio's gov Kasich everyday, Kasich was the one that was caught gamling away public secvice workers pensions on wallstreet afew years ago, how soon does Ohio's voters forget!! As republicans reach into more working American's pockets and give huge tax cuts to the wealthy, perhaps America will wake up and be more informed voters! Our new GOP wants a 62 billion deficit cut in social programs after giving $400 billion in tax cuts to the top 2%. This is what I call corporate welfare and the destruction of the working class...."We the people" must stop the corporate lobbist before they rob us blind. Wake up America!

February 27 2011 at 9:58 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jimstngry's comment

THE problem, is, and the simple fact of the matter that seems to escape so many Union Supporter's (who are predominantly MEMBERS, oddly enough!), is---Union's pay wages predicated upon, almost solely: "Association". And NOT on merit in any degree to speak loudly on. Go ahead, argue that simple fact all you want, but it is the simple fact of the matter, and the largest bone of contention among those detractor's who look beyond the touchy-feely surface, and bother to study facts at all. And much to many of THOSE people's dismay, it is really showing itself to be an absolute, and is very evident in the Public Services Union Sector----whereas true, low brow, knuckle, and azz dragging, dang near mono-syllabic, drooling imbeciles get a fat check, and other perks just for being a member. Hey, I deal with 'em ALL the time in my business, which is a part of the PRIVATE SECTOR, and so I am able to speak with total candor, and FAIRLY, thanks to first hand experience on the subject.

If one of you who whine and snivel about what is "fair", will PLEASE---after you wipe the tears away, explain WHY it is "fair" that the taxpayer should be burdened with what amnounts to just another "government give-away program", that is "feeding" people just because they are "hungry", and yet are unwilling to give something (maybe an honest days work?) back in "trade" to those who "feed" them...then maybe I will think about changing my position...that is, if it somehow convinces me that my opinion is in need of change.

Jes' sayin'


February 27 2011 at 9:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Who in the heck is this Mike fella? It constantly sets me on my heels as to how fast the uninformed lay judgement on an issue that they don't really know anything about. Mike reminds me of a superintendant or foreman that has to listen to his employer spout the evils of unions. In order to keep his job(and rate of pay), Mike needs to roll the info right on down the line. Can we say "dittohead?" My name is Steve. I am a 33 year union pipefitter that is ultimately proud to have been union all these years. I am about to retire now, and will receive the pension that I EARNED and paid for. I will be a burden to NO taxpayers as a retiree. Sounds like a good deal for a middle class hard working stiff like me. Nobody that knows anything about what I had to go through to get to this point in my life will utter a word to me about how unions are this or unions are that. UNIONS are nothing less than the saving grace of ALL the middle class!
I am, A husband, father, viet nam era veteran, proud American that will NEVER set foot in a walmart. Now that.... is true patriotism!

February 27 2011 at 9:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to rmbl2010's comment

Steve, Thank you for your service and for all you do, You are truly a great American!

February 27 2011 at 10:10 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

The war of all against all is definitely heating up in the "land of opportunity"!
Of course, a civil war in modern America will probably amount to little more than a pillow fight at a gay bar, but I'm sure those old retired Soviets will enjoy watching it nonetheless.

February 27 2011 at 3:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I read a story yesterday about a 23 yr old pissed off because he was making 9 an hr in Ohio and teachers made so much more.He had 3 kids at 23, why is he having kids with no future or skills,why did he not leave Ohio.A friend of mine used to work for lucent about 10 yrs ago had about 600,000 in stock options they merged with a foreign company after they went in the crapper for accounting problems.His 600,000 were worth about 40,000 at the end. 2 yrs later he got laid off has not had a decent job since.But back when those options were in the money he would tell me i was wasting my time at a state job. Now he is jealous like so many others and thinks i am overcompensated.

February 27 2011 at 1:20 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to enylctomred's comment

One need only consider the damage that the UAW did to the American auto industry over the last 40 years to understand the low image many have of unions. There are obvious reasons why the auto industry has exploded with non-union factories across the south.

February 27 2011 at 10:29 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

It saddens me to see that so many non-union low paid workers are eager to add as many entrants as possible in America's new race to the bottom. Instead of organizing and negotiating for better salaries from multi-billion dollar operations such as Walmart, many would rather see everyone join in their misery.

In this new millennium business environment of unpredictable, uncompassionate executive savagery and financial trickery, employees will not get what we deserve, but rather what we negotiate. The strategy of “Every man for himself!” will only serve to effectively continue the erosion of working conditions and wages.

In fact, the need for unionization in our country has never been greater. In this new Gilded Age of bloated executive compensation, opulent mansions and megayachts, and private jets, a cohesive, unionized workforce is perhaps our best chance of limiting our slide toward a nation of two classes- the super rich few, and 280 million peons who work for $8 / hour.

This is not to say that the current union model is without fault. It merely states that the negotiating strength of 200,000 is greater than the negotiating strength of 1. After being forced back into the job market recently, I can relate this with absolute certainty.

Much of this blame can be laid with corporations who have done an excellent job of villanizing all union workers. There has been a great deal of discourse during the past decade pertaining to the outdated character of labor unions. “Slow to change.” “Organizations dedicated to the protection of slackers.” “Unproductive and militantly status quo.” “Inefficient.”

While these accusations resonate with varying degrees of validity, they should be viewed as constructive criticism, rather than rationale for dissolution.

These are issues which need to be addressed immediately by every guild to restore 100% credibility to the union movement.

Union workers in general are the best paid craftsmen in the country, and usually enjoy benefits not available to non-unionized workers. As such, members of organized labor should be the most highly skilled and productive component of our workforce.

Membership should be a privilege that signifies proven excellence. It should not be automatic or easy. Driftwood must be culled from the ranks. It is a sad commentary that many employers try to match union pay for their employees just to keep the threat of them actually unionizing at bay.

If unions are to survive, reform is inevitable.

If unions don’t prevail, and wages and benefits are decimated, inevitably all middle class occupations including lower and mid level management will eventually suffer the same fate. Why would a CEO pay someone $60,000 a year to manage a staff making an average of $20,000 a year?

Don’t let your frustration with the current condition of state politics make you believe that you can achieve more long term by going alone. There is strength in numbers, and eventually, the union label will recover its status as a badge of honor.

February 27 2011 at 7:27 AM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply