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What Happened To Organized Labor?
FIFTY YEARS AGO unions seemed invincible, but they’ve been losing battles and members ever since. The reasons their fortunes fell suggest that they’re sure to rise again.
July/August 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 4
Yet even then there were problems. Nearly two-thirds of all employees still weren’t union members in 1945. Organized labor had become dependent on the government and the Democratic party, both of which were on the defensive by the postwar years. Most serious of all, the unions’ success generated a powerful backlash, as more and more nonmembers became alarmed at organized labor’s strength, especially during the dramatic postwar strike wave, which lasted through 1946 and idled more than a million workers. Public revulsion against “irresponsible” and “greedy” unions, epitomized by the United Mine Workers (UMW) —whose president, John L. Lewis, openly expressed his contempt for President Truman’s mediation efforts—contributed to Republican victories in 1946 and ensured that a new, anti-union Congress would revive pre-war efforts to curb the organizations’ powers.
The result was the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which supposedly “balanced” the powers of labor and management by subjecting unions to a variety of new restrictions. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) would continue to regulate industrial relations, but in a less labor-friendly manner; complete deregulation was avoided because it wouldn’t have dealt with the problem of disruptive strikes and because employers had discovered that regulation could work in their favor. Through legal maneuvers they had already been able to thwart the pro-union character of the law; with a “neutral” board they would fare even better.
In the late 1940s and the 1950s, the NLRB became demonstrably less helpful to the labor movement. President Truman’s appointees, moderately pro-labor, tried to satisfy both sides but only encouraged employers to intensify their attacks. Elsenhower’s appointees, who dominated the board by 1954, made no secret of wanting to change its direction. By 1955 the board had, among other things, implemented more stringent restrictions on union boycotts and excluded from their jurisdiction many small businesses, including most retail firms. The Eisenhower board openly sought to limit regulation and accommodate employer interests, and it succeeded in making life tougher for union leaders, the future less certain for prospective union members, and the NLRB a political football.
As the legal and regulatory environment for unions cooled during the 1950s, their popular image also suffered, amid a series of highly publicized scandals involving the Teamsters and other organizations with long records of unsavory activity. The U.S. Senate’s McClellan investigation of union corruption, in 1957–58, was particularly harmful. A Gallup poll in February 1957, on the eve of the McClellan hearings, reported that 76 percent of Americans approved of unions. In September, after dramatic revelations about Teamster affairs, only 64 percent approved, and labor’s approval rating never again approached that previous level.
There was no evidence that union misbehavior had become more prevalent after World War II, but labor’s very success had made corruption a more potent issue. Union treasuries were richer, and the rise of insurance and pension funds created new opportunities for abuse. Smaller corrupt organizations, such as the International Longshoremen’s Association, attracted only fleeting interest, but the mighty Teamsters, the largest American union, was another matter. If the biggest could be subverted by criminals, was any union secure?
The McClellan hearings initially focused on the Teamsters’ president, Dave Beck, whose clumsy looting of the organization’s treasury and boorish behavior made him a convenient target; he subsequently resigned in disgrace. The senators then discovered an even more attractive antagonist in Beck’s successor, James Hoffa. Revelations of Hoffa’s violent behavior and underworld ties captured headlines; he boasted, “I do to others what they do to me, only worse.” Though the hearings proved to be only the first act in a prolonged legal contest between Hoffa and the government, the sordid essentials were well known by 1958. The Teamsters were expelled from the AFL-CIO, but this did little to repair the damage to the labor movement.
In the end Beck and Hoffa went to jail, and the government grew more sensitive to union corruption. In 1959 Congress passed the Landrum-Griffin Act, which regulated union management and tightened Taft-Hartley restrictions on union activities. More damaging in the long term, employers began tarring all organizers with the brush of Beck and Hoffa. Prospective members began to worry about being robbed and bullied. The effect was probably strongest in the South and West, where the labor movement had only a modest base, and in the fast-growing service industries, where organization still was a novelty.
Employers had emerged from World War II with renewed self-confidence and quickly launched a campaign to reverse the unions’ gains. The labor expert Neil Chamberlain, a professor of economics at Yale University, noted in 1948 that they were prepared to “fight along a wide front.” They avoided outright confrontation while striving to restrict unions to their postwar strongholds, a goal that proved surprisingly attainable.