What Happened To Organized Labor?


The big industrial unions faced the most serious challenges. By the 1950s the United Steelworkers had become a lethargic giant. The United Auto Workers (UAW) supported a variety of social causes and insistently followed the automakers to the South, yet it too failed to extend its reach. The major exception to this pattern—but not a positive one—was the United Mine Workers; it entered a near-fatal downward spiral in the 1950s. The coal industry declined after World War II as consumption dwindled and competition intensified. The UMW president John L. Lewis negotiated a series of innovative contracts in the late 1940s, but then in 1950 he entered into a covert partnership with George Love, the leading employer. In return for approving draconian layoffs and, in the historian Curtis Seltzer’s words, becoming “the Bituminous Coal Operators Association’s thug, doing its dirty work in the name of his members,” he preserved the jobs of a relative handful of highly paid loyalists. Unlike other union leaders, Lewis made no effort even to defend the status quo.

The merger in 1954–55 of the two great aggregations of unions, the old AFL, dominated by the organizations of skilled, relatively autonomous workers, and the newer CIO, representing the ranks of less skilled factory and industrial laborers, did little to resolve these problems. Beset by poor leadership and chaotic organization, the CIO had faced mounting difficulties after World War II. Apart from the Steel and Auto Workers, its affiliated unions were mostly small and poor; many were not even self-supporting. Some AFL officials urged their president, George Meany, to let the CIO collapse. He demurred: “If the CIO disintegrates, it’s going to be bad for labor.” A formal merger would be less disruptive. Given this background, it is not surprising that the merger failed to stimulate a new era of union activism.

Employers in the South and West mobilized to prevent the spread of collective bargaining, and cost-conscious managers began to relocate there.

Clearly, the labor movement had encountered a formidable list of problems by 1970. Yet its worst disasters lay ahead. Organized labor was still larger and stronger than at any time before World War II, and total membership was at record levels, though the proportion of unionized workers was not. In the 1970s all the problems of the 1950s and 1960s would become more severe, making that decade a time of unprecedented crisis.

The decade from 1973 to 1982 was devastating for union and nonunion workers alike. The energy crises of 1973–74 and 1979–80 and the severe recessions that followed were only the most obvious signs of trouble. Rising energy costs spurred wide-ranging attacks on inflation, including industry deregulation that undermined the intricate business-labor partnerships that had characterized the transportation, energy, and communications fields since the 1930s. The dislocations of the 1970s also exposed problems that had been germinating during the easy prosperity of the postwar era. The severe recession of the early 1980s eliminated more than two million union jobs, far more than any previous postwar recession. When the economy finally recovered, in the mid-1980s, technological innovation accelerated and employment grew rapidly, but American unions did not revive; indeed, in most industries organization continued to decline.

Most of the unions’ losses were the result of economic developments largely unrelated to industrial relations. The dramatic decline of the steel, auto, and auto-parts industries in the 1970s devastated the Steelworkers, Auto Workers, Rubber Workers, and others. The fate of the tire industry was typical.

American tire companies had been slow to embrace the radial tire, which, among other things, increased fuel efficiency. The energy crisis of 1973–74 transformed the tire market, creating opportunities for Michelin and other foreign companies that specialized in radiais. Facing catastrophic losses, the American manufacturers had little choice but to shift to radial production. They did have a choice, however, about where they would make the new tires. They could reorganize their Northern plants, install new machinery, and retrain veteran workers, or they could expand their Southern operations, some of which were nonunion, and hire new workers. In 1976, contract negotiations stalled over the union’s demand for automatic cost-of-living adjustments. The result was a bitter 141-day nationwide strike that tipped the balance in favor of the new Southern factories. The second energy crisis and the recession of the early 1980s sealed the Northern plants’ fate. By 1986 the tire companies had closed thirty-two plants, including their oldest and largest factories, and eliminated thousands of union jobs.