Tue. Jun 18th, 2024

By: Grainne Rhuad

With the recent union strikes in Great Britain occurring many of the occupy folks are beginning to talk about joining with unions here in the U.S. for support and somewhat of a strong arm to back them up.  It’s an idea that has potential.  However, unions in general here in the U.S. have become largely ineffectual figure head entities.  They weren’t always that way.

Labor Unions in the U.S. date all the way back to the beginning of the revolutionary war.  In fact, they factored in the beginning of the war.  With people who were conscripted to serve the British higher ups for a pittance while still having to feed themselves and their families.  They were fed up and took up with the rebellion.  They wanted what every worker wants: Fair wages and decent hours.

While the unions in this era banded and disbanded rather quickly, usually rallying to something specific then going back to work or off to war, as happened in 1778 when a group of printers banded together in New York City to gain better wages.  They did and as a result, disbanded.

With the event of the Industrial Revolution, more people young and old were put to work in factory settings.  During this time many unions were formed and strikes held.  Strikes were held for shorter, 10 hour work days, against worker mistreatment and child labor.  Sometimes they worked and other times they just lost their jobs.  This was unskilled labor after all and enough people were hungry, poor and cold enough to refill jobs.

After the 1837 legislation that granted workers 10 hour work days, employers began looking for ways around the changes.  As a result factories and communities started broadening their sphere to include like minded workers in other cities and factories to organize as a larger bargaining group.  This was the beginning of what we think of today as a labor union in the United States. The first of which was the National Labor Union formed in 1866. This group actually fought for and helped pass in Congress the 8 hour workday which is pretty standard even now.

In 1864 that the first modern longshoremen’s union was formed in the port of New York; the Longshoremen’s Union Protective Association (LUPA). They would become an instrumental entity in the fight for unionization. They were so influential because much of the goods produced had to be shipped by boat.  When they would strike it would bring commerce to a halt, so businessmen had to take note and work with them.  Because LUPA was so influential, they were able to join with other unions like ones in factories when they would stage their own strikes, furthering their influence.

They also used other tactics such as naming themselves in such a way as to appeal to the American people. When Port of Baltimore native and International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) leader Jeff Davis coined the phrase “ILA: means ‘I Love America'” during World War I, he explicitly connected the ILA with a deep and passionate patriotism, which has been a defining characteristic of the Union since its infancy in America’s heartland straight through to today’s era of advanced internationalism. ILA patriotism runs deeper than the personal convictions of the Union’s dynamic leaders – it is an expression of the central role longshoring has played in this nation’s history.

The ILA wasn’t the only influential national union. The Teamsters also were vitally important to the labor movement.  A strike or sympathy strike by the Teamsters could paralyze the movement of goods throughout cities and the country.  It also meant that Teamsters leaders were able to demand bribes in order to avoid strikes, and control of a Teamsters local could bring organized crime significant revenues.

Throughout their history in America however unions weren’t always welcomed.  In fact during the time that we term ‘The Union Uprising’ members of the middle and upper-class would rally in response to unions.  These people were termed “Union Busters’ and would employ a variety of tactics.

One of these was to infiltrate factories or pay someone else to do so in order to talk down unions to the workers.  Usually they would try to persuade non-union shops that by paying a fee to unions they would be losing much needed money.  They would use this same argument for not striking, warning their (fake) compatriots that by striking they would both lose money and their jobs which nobody could afford to do during the depression era.   In fact many workers did lose their jobs and ended up working farms as migrant workers if they could find work at all.  This contributed to the era of hobos, travelling from town to town looking for any sort of work.  The dustbowl days during this time certainly didn’t help.

Another tactic was to actually assault union organizers.  Groups of armed men would beat and even shoot those attempting to organize for better wages and shorter work weeks, as well as safety on the job.

Union busters would also visit churches, sermonizing to the people the evil of unionism.  Sometimes calling it Communist and sometimes just calling it an evil thing, a “secret combination or society.”  This appealed to a lot of the American sort of congregations and as a result set public opinion against unions.

Often when one thinks of labor unions they also think of the Mafia which did a very good job infiltrating unions.  By doing so they were able to command deals for contracts on construction, transport and more.  They would do so by making sure their legitimate business ventures had unions and Mafia affiliated personnel were voted in as negotiators.  It is here that we begin to see real corruptness in how union negotiations were handled.  A union rep is a legitimate job; however, the reps would send a kick-back to their respected “families” in return for a little extra cash themselves.  To keep the non- affiliated workers quiet, not to mention themselves in office, very often they would use coercion in the form of violence and bribes.

In office they would order work stoppage in order to get the price they wanted for contracts. In certain areas organized crime was so rampant that cities and contractors had no choice but to comply.  However to be fair, they did help to stop the Union Busters from abusing workers, it is probably due to this that workers allowed for what they knew was organized crime to join with them.

In a sense it was the organized crime element that caused unions today to be so ineffectual.  The last 20 years have seen the federal government crack down on Mafia-union connections to a great extent. But without a real strong hand unions lose to a great extent their bargaining power.  This is why today a lot of worker’s rights are dictated by the very entities the union is supposed to be protecting the worker from.

As late as 2005, sweeping civil racketeering lawsuits were brought against the International Longshoremen’s Association. It was at the time, the government’s most aggressive attempt ever to wrest the nation’s Atlantic and Gulf Coast docks and the union that represents their workers from what prosecutors claimed was a half-century of control by two powerful New York mob clans. This suite included 26 people connected to crime families.

However unions have accomplished a lot of the progress and rights we expect from employers even today. In 1949 they helped to pass the child labor act.  The 1960’s saw both the equal pay and civil rights act, both of which were demanded by labor unions.  Unions negotiate for better job distribution, pay and medical benefits.  Also vacation and retirement funding.  They are supposed to be there should a member need help negotiating over a job dispute of any kind with an employer.  Sexual Harassment laws were helped along by unions.

However lately union officials and officers have lost a lot of their bargaining power.  They have much less strength behind them as members in many jobs are required to be union members.  The fact that they cannot choose whether or not to be members has distanced them.  Without that choice people very often don’t pay attention or vote for their representatives.  Many times they don’t even think to call when they need help in the workplace.

If unions are going to be helpful to us in the future whether it’s with an Occupy movement, general strike people are going to have to become more active and demand as well as strengthen their union.  Even still unions may or may not be helpful to workers.  They have been taken over by corrupt entities before and are particularly vulnerable at this time, to infiltration.

There is great strength in numbers but only if those numbers support one another and watch for what is best for all.




By Grainne

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7 thoughts on “There Is Power In a Union”
  1. This is what comes to mind for me, still, when I think of unions: “When Port of Baltimore native and International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) leader Jeff Davis coined the phrase “ILA: means ‘I Love America’” during World War I, he explicitly connected the ILA with a deep and passionate patriotism, which has been a defining characteristic of the Union since its infancy in America’s heartland straight through to today’s era of advanced internationalism. ILA patriotism runs deeper than the personal convictions of the Union’s dynamic leaders – it is an expression of the central role longshoring has played in this nation’s history.”.
    I also agree with you about the current usefulness of unions. Memgbers desire to see direct influnce from their union reps. When they don’t get it their support, fiscal or otherwise, deminishes. One benefit I see in my current union is when they come to support of members in need (e.g. donations of sick time off to support another member who has used up all of their leave).
    It will be interesting to see if union support of the Occupy Movement in this county gets some traction as it did in the UK with their healthcare workers. Great topic.

  2. Grainne, your concentration was on unions, but i would like to reflect on the blue collar working class in general. It’s not just that they have been able to demonstrate again and again they are completely capable of holding up goods and services, but the value the blue collar worker gives to the community.

    If you think of the blue collar worker only as the weak, down-trodden and suppressed, you have a very lop-sided picture. Many blue collar workers have specific skills; carpenters, construction workers, long shore men, commercial fishermen, builders, etc.; that cannot be easily replaced. These workers are intelligent, educated, generally of moral sound judgment, and physically strong. They have chosen hard labor as their skill and take pride in their work. Workers like this are warriors once they reach a common accord. They could strike a powerful blow because they are too stalwart to be intimidated by police brutality and too knowledgeable to be easily replaced.

  3. I belonged to a union while I worked for the federal government .. over the years many union reps would get promotions that were questionable … and many members dropped out of the union citing the cost of union dues … it is not surprising that support of the union was considered a bad career choice … the union became just a bump on the road to any labor issue … but without unions there would never have been the 8 hour work day, overtime pay and as Newt and the anti-union republicans say, poor kids should be cleaning schools .. MIchelle Backmann actually said that the minimum wage is killing jobs in America .. let her live on 40 hours of $7.45 per …. power isn’t shared in America .. it is guarded by those who only have a bottom line … all decision involve cost without regard to how those at the bottom of the economic ladder can exist … does anyone really think that it was the employee costs that sank the auto industry ??? For every dollar they gave to the unions they took $100 …. There seems to be little that is inherently fair about live .. blaming those who just get by can’t be a solution to anything .. why is the victim always at fault ??

  4. You said it best here: “Often when one thinks of labor unions they also think of the Mafia which did a very good job infiltrating unions. By doing so they were able to command deals for contracts on construction, transport and more.”

    The corruption used by the elite power structure of top corporate execs IS like the Mafia. Who else would feel any sense of ethics in completely invading a person’s background to the point they read their Facebook messages and scan their photos like a common voyeur?

    Without union representation, the working class has become the exploited class. Not only are disability claims up from being over stressed at work from unreal demands, but the amount of workplace shootings has risen too. The point is, you can only push people so far before they rise up and say, “Enough!”

    It is time for the return of unions and time for boycotting corporations that do excessive invasive background checks for positions it isn’t needed, use ageist percentiles for hiring, demand credit checks for positions where credit worthiness is not an issue, and in general, demonstrate a complete disregard for their employees private lives.

  5. BTW, in Los Angeles, unions ARE supporting the OWS movement. Marching side by side with the protesters of Occupy were the members who helped organize some of the most peaceful protests in the country, the SEIU. And it WAS effective!

  6. I actually believe orgainized crime may have been a better deal than what we are getting now.

    No Mafia crime lord ever kicked a family out of a home due to the failings of one person. In fact very often families of those who were killed as punishment were cared for. Now I know that sounds harsh, you lose your breadwinner or son, but you aren’t left without help, as our government does. Nobody tells you your pensions and social security is going to be cut.

    As I see it today we have very many unions who don’t actually represent us, because they have no investment in the outcome of workers. Understand I am not saying this of every union-rather most. My experience with unions (st a county agency) has been the county tells them what they can do and they do it. They don’t even bother to argue or bargain. This is not the way a union should act and they are losing members because of it.

    Of course working class workers are not weak and are the heart of our society. They very often are just as educated if not more than bankers, brokers, etc. I don’t however think they are being trodden upon entirely. I think people are allowing themselves to be in this position. People are not taking responsiblity for themselves, their votes, their lifeplans.

    We as a whole have become too dependant on the state. That is a huge mistake.

    I am aware that unions have been in support of the OWS movement. However they aren’t calling for general strikes and using dues the way they are meant to be used, to support families with strike pay. An orgainized strike would more effectively bring the attention necessary. It would close shop, as they did in the U.K. Then the government would have 2 choices. Work with the strikers or bring down the police state on them. Either one would bring greater attention to the American and Global community.

  7. “I don’t however think they are being trodden upon entirely. I think people are allowing themselves to be in this position.” Grainne, that is precisely why i made the statement i did concerning blue collar workers. The unions themselves can be very frustrating to work with if you can’t get the ring leaders on your side. However, if you can sway the blue collar worker to strike, you have one of the most powerful forces in America saying no to capitalist crimes.

    “We as a whole have become too dependant on the state.” That is another major problem. Over the past forty years we have shifted more and more responsibilities over to the State; child care, elderly needs, troubled youth behavior, compensation for low-paying jobs in form of food stamps and shelter; feeding back into the State, corporate management of these services. Then, after forty years of this reliance, creating a weaker and weaker family and community structure, we continue to turn to the State and say, “fix these problems”.

    I believe there are people working for the State who would like to “fix it”, but their good intentions are buried under piles of bureaucratic paperwork. Effective legislation has come to a stand still. It took one year to build the Empire State Building. It now takes five years just to clear all the permits. In the meantime, corporate management in the guise of all manner of authority; counselors, attorneys, accountants, consultants, lobbyists, investors; bring out their milk machines for the long haul.

    Forget the State. Forget reliance on the State. The more you turn to it for answers, the more power it has over you. The strength, the integrity, the reliance must come from ourselves. We must begin our own rebuilding process. One abandoned house at a time, we will occupy. One vacant lot at a time, we’ll clear of its concrete rubble and turn into a garden. One stream at a time, we’ll turn into a healthy water way. The State will fight us. Have no doubt about it, but the strength is in our numbers, and if we do this, nature will be on our side.

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