A century after launching the campaign for an eight-hour workday, the US labor movement faces challenges that may well determine its long-term survival. While automation and globalization threatens massive displacement, and employer resistance to aggressive organizing meanwhile turns union-busting into a growth industry, business pushes new schemes to limit the basic right to organize.
One of the more insidious is so-called "paycheck protection," being aggressively hawked by GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush as a way to neutralize the movement for campaign finance reform. Without it, he claims, any reform would be like "unilateral disarmament" for Republicans. The idea is to require unions to get permission from each member before using any dues for political purposes. Unions would be effectively muzzled while corporations remained free to influence elections in many other ways.
In a sense, this isn’t new. Congressional amendments to the National Labor Relations Act and federal court rulings have undermined organizing rights for decades. Often favoring "employer free speech," government looks the other way as thousands lose their jobs each year just for backing union drives. But with "paycheck protection," business also has another edge — mass opinion. Not only does the general public appear to support it; union members themselves are in favor. In other words, most no longer trust their own representatives to effectively counter corporate political offensives on their behalf.
Unions have been on the defensive for decades. In the 1950s, for example, they won almost three-quarters of all representation drives. Now they win less than half. In 1978, over 25 percent of all employees were in unions. Twenty years later, the figure is 15 percent, and lower in many states. In Vermont, home for one of labor’s main congressional champions, Rep. Bernie Sanders, just 12 percent of workers are in unions, or 35,000 in state work force of 280,000. Suburban growth and "deindustrialization" have effectively eroded the movement’s traditional base. Along with the expansion of non-union industries, intensified international competition, and increased capital mobility, such changes have seriously undermined the traditional image of organized labor as the central vehicle to press for improved living standards, increase leisure time, and counter employee exploitation.
But this fall from grace is also a case of collective amnesia, brought on by the cultural emphasis of consumerism and individual achievement over participation and cooperation. Unions are widely portrayed today as just another special interest group, one routinely defamed in popular media as corrupt, selfish, or both. Films like Hoffa and TV shows like The Sopranos reflect the general view: Perhaps a noble experiment once upon a time, organized labor has become a captive of "the mob" and is often betrayed by its own leaders. The only recent TV program that directly addressed workplace issues, Working, was a weak comedy set in a white-collar office. Even there, the main issue was getting ahead, and the word "solidarity" was never spoken.
The Long March
The true, largely ignored history of the labor movement tells a very different story — a long and dedicated effort, despite often ruthless opposition, to shorten working hours, obtain a living wage, abolish child labor, eliminate unemployment, and win reforms like Social Security, equal rights, and medical care for all. The first labor societies in the US, which were persecuted as illegal conspiracies, fought for minimum daily wages and a ten-hour day. How dare they! screeched the powers-that-were. Yet, labor’s early proposals, things like free public schools and elimination of imprisonment for debt, became law before the Civil War.
As the industrial revolution took hold, however, management fought back. Spies and provocateurs were hired, detective agencies were used to break up strikes, workers were forced to sign oaths swearing they wouldn’t join a union, and blacklists were created to keep potential organizers out of workplaces. In 1848, when Irish immigrant workers in Vermont went on strike for two months’ back pay, the militia was called out on July 4 to help management crush the protest. Railroad magnate Jay Gould expressed the cynicism of that time: "I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half."
At the end of the 19th century, the conflict between business and labor came to a head over the campaign for an eight-hour day (the average was 11 then). As one of the movement’s most famous martyrs, Albert Parsons, told a congressional committee investigating the "labor question" in 1879, "We want to reduce the worst disability of poverty by reducing the hours of labor; by the distributing of work that is to be done more equally among the workingmen, and consequently reducing competition for the opportunity to work."
On May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers laid down their tools across the US in a virtual national strike for the eight-hour day. In Chicago, led by Parsons and his wife, Lucy, 80,000 supporters marched up Michigan Avenue. Meanwhile, on the rooftops, police and business goons crouched behind rifles, prepared to fire on command. Two days later, they got their chance when picketers heckled strikebreakers at the gates of the McCormick Reaper Workers. That event, in which two workers were killed, led to the tragic bombing near Haymarket Square the following night.
The identity of the bomb thrower was never confirmed, but the establishment and a hysterical press seized the advantage and clamored for retribution. In the reign of terror that ensued — the country’s first "red scare" — eight of the city’s leading organizers, most of whom hadn’t even attended the doomed rally, were convicted of murder and conspiracy on the basis of their anarchist leanings and militant statements. May 1 became May Day, a workers’ holiday celebrated around the world (although rarely in the US) to commemorate the significance of the Haymarket tragedy. At the same time, however, labor got a lasting black eye, and the image of anarchists as wild-eyed, foreign-born, bomb-throwing maniacs was embedded in popular consciousness. After that, most unions steered away from strikes and socialism, preferring to negotiate modest gains.
Parsons — one of four Chicago organizers hung on November 11, 1887 — knew that even winning a shorter workday was only a stopgap measure. In fact, he predicted how business would respond: "Employers will put labor-saving machinery to work instead of the higher-priced laborers. The laborers will then for the same reason that they reduced the hours to eight, have to reduce them to six hours per day." He also linked the domestic struggle to emerging global trends. The elite view was that employment could only be expanded through finding new foreign markets; that meant keeping wages low to compete internationally. But Parsons and others argued that this would only depress purchasing power, ultimately destroying jobs both at home and overseas.
Over a century later, his analysis is still on target. Under the impacts of "free trade" and increased automation, millions of jobs are at risk. In Asia, the corporate search for increased production with sweatshop labor has led to financial collapse and growing joblessness. In the US, the impact is felt in major corporate layoffs, hiring freezes, and plant relocations to Mexico. Meanwhile, despite technological advances, the average number of hours most Americans work has increased. If the current trend continues, US employees soon will be spending as much time at their jobs as they did back in the 20s.
Reading the business pages of most local papers, you’re left with the impression that things have rarely been better. Newspaper headlines and politicians, particularly the Democrats these days, trumpet the news. But it all depends on whose facts and statistics you prefer. Under-employment is a serious problem, for example, and almost 20 percent of all workers earn less than a livable wage. An AFL-CIO survey confirms that the income gap between men and women is rising again, just as the number of female-headed households increases. These factors, plus the absence of employee benefits for about half of all part-timers, are deepening the feminization of poverty.
The labor movement does have a strategy — a civil rights-style crusade to stop restrictive labor laws, raise the minimum wage, and promote organizing rights and drives to unionize new groups such as nurses, who face cost-cutting that promotes assembly-line services. In the long-term, though, even winning such fights won’t resolve the issues raised by the technological revolution.
Sharing the Work
Computers and other "labor-saving" machines are allowing companies to eliminate whole job categories, while employing a smaller work force for longer hours. Even paying time and a half overtime, they come out ahead. In US factories, the hours of work have increased as the number of employees has steadily declined. In Europe, where unemployment is higher, this trend has led to a new rallying cry: Work Less, and Everyone Works. In Japan, the government has made shorter hours a national goal, realizing not only that it deals with technological displacement but also that more leisure time stimulates the service economy. Yet, US business leaders remain adamantly opposed, arguing that staying "competitive" could require even longer hours.
Echoing the eight-hour day campaign, a national movement to reduce the workweek could be labor’s key to recapturing public confidence. According to a 1993 survey by the Families and Work Institute, a growing number in the US would trade income gains for more free time. Over 75 percent said they preferred more leisure to career advancement. Why? Largely because the lack of free time has become a serious issue for parents and communities. Some studies say that a third of the country’s youngsters are caring for themselves. Along with a decline in the amount of time parents spend with their kids has come an "abandonment" syndrome, manifesting itself in increasing childhood depression, delinquency, violence, drug abuse, and even suicide.
Women in the US currently work an average of more than 80 hours a week — on the job and in the home. Not surprisingly, they’re especially receptive to the prospect of less work and more free time. Although equal pay is their immediate concern, a resurgence of the US labor movement may ultimately hinge on organizing with women around a shorter workweek. Such a campaign would clearly demonstrate that unions are concerned with more than their own members. It could also unite them with parenting, social justice, neighborhood, and women’s groups. One small step in this direction is legislation that would discourage the use of overtime as a way to avoid providing benefits for additional employees. The longer-term solution, already introduced in Congress, is a 30-hour week, and the linking of a higher minimum wage to the consumer price index.
Putting millions to work, a shorter week would result in dramatic savings in unemployment compensation and welfare payments. The impact on culture, commerce, and family life would be even more profound.
Actually, the choice is fairly clear: As machines continue to replace human beings in most industries, it’s either longer hours for the remaining "lucky" employees — with many left jobless or underemployed — or giving more people the chance both to share the available work and reconnect with their families. But unless organized labor can improve its image and resist the current drive to muzzle it, we may not get to decide until much more damage is done.
Henry Demarest Lloyd, an early critic of monopolies and loyal friend of labor, summed it up in 1893. Defending the right to organize and an eight-hour day, he remarked that uniting with others in common cause is the law of life. "Individuality becomes possible only by association," he explained. "Man isolated, would be man the brute … But every new tie gives a new individuality. And every attempt on the part of those who are the buyers of labor to prevent the sellers from uniting to promote and protect their interests, is an attempt to de-humanize the worker and decivilize the world." Fortunately, the dehumanization isn’t complete yet. And despite the setbacks, labor’s long fight to civilize the world of work may yet be won.
Greg Guma is the editor of Toward Freedom (TF), a progressive world affairs magazine, author of The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution, and a member of the National Writers Union.