- Historic Sites
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
In many professions dismissal from one’s job is tantamount to dismissal from the profession, but public-sector workers typically have protection against arbitrary discharge, and the courts increasingly have extended similar rights to private-sector workers. The emergence of professional athletes’ unions, the single most successful organizing story of the post-World War II era, is a commentary on the relationship between such threats and worker behavior. Until the middle of the twentieth century, team owners wholly controlled the (usually brief) careers of their players. They could trade them or fire them without explanation or appeal.
By 1976 the four major professional sports had collective-bargaining agreements. The Major League Baseball Players Association, spurred by its more prominent and secure members, was the catalyst for change. In 1966 it hired an aggressive executive director and became a de facto union. The impact was apparent almost immediately. A formal collective-bargaining contract was signed in 1968, and amid much turmoil, including a strike in 1972 and a lockout in 1976, the players won more generous pensions, higher minimum salaries, free agency, and salary arbitration, which benefited the stars. As soon as a handful of star players had demonstrated their willingness to defy the owners, the other players had readily joined them.
For most service-sector workers the prospect of reprisals remains a serious threat. Many employers strongly oppose collective bargaining, especially at fast-growing companies like Wal-Mart and MCI, which have succeeded by undercutting competitors’ prices. But two major political phenomena have favored service workers. The first is the effect of the antiestablishment protests of the 1960s and early 1970s in making people aware of the potential of mass action. The second is the passage of laws that have formally lessened the resistance of government employers to union activity.
The civil rights movement had a direct impact on African-American workers and an indirect influence on others just when the Teamster scandals and other troubles were weakening the appeal of organization for most rank-and-file workers. A prime example was the growth of Local 1199 of the Retail Drug Employees Union, in New York. After many years of indifferent success representing pharmacy employees, it began in the late 1950s to organize local hospital workers, especially low-wage, low-skill employees. Its organizers were able to draw on the example of the civil rights movement to build an aggressive constituency. As one leader explained, “This is more than just another union, this is part of the freedom struggle.” The local’s first hospital contract came in late 1958, its first large strike in mid-1959. What began as a rebellion of dissatisfied workers comparing themselves to victims of racial segregation became a broader, more conventional organizing campaign, and by 1970 the local’s members included three-quarters of all of New York City’s hospital employees.
The rise of professional athletes’ unions is the most successful organizing story since World War II, but events have also encouraged service workers.
New York’s municipal-employees unions followed a similar path. District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees start- ed as a union of park laborers, expanded rapidly in the 1960s, in part by identifying with the civil rights movement, and became a major force in New York local government. The American Federation of Teachers also had impressive successes in New York that then emboldened teachers in suburban and small-city systems. They in turn became more restive and critical of the narrow focus of the National Education Association, and by the late 1960s they had forced NEA leaders to embrace collective bargaining. Public school teaching, and to a lesser degree public college teaching, were transformed as dramatically as was inner-city public-service employment.
Did the passage of laws guaranteeing public employees the right to organize cause union activism or result from it? The question has been much debated, and the answer is probably both. Government employees saw themselves as victims of neglect and indifference, and, like other aggrieved groups, they relied on both mass action and political pressure to agitate for change. A 1962 executive order by President Kennedy encouraged organization among federal employees, and five states adopted public-employee bargaining laws in the 1960s; nineteen, including virtually all the highly urbanized states, would do so in the seventies. These laws marked the beginning of a period when collective bargaining was extended to most police officers and firefighters as well.