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© Cesar Chavez & panelists prepare for support rally presentation. The Bob Fitch Photography Archive.


A Barren Marriage

by David Zonderman
February 4, 2021

This interview with David Zonderman, head of the history department and a professor of history at North Carolina State University, was conducted and condensed by franknews

frank | Why do you think unions are important? 

I would say unions are important for several reasons.

One, they are a fundamental way for workers to express their basic demands for decent wages and decent benefits in a safe working place. Secondly, it's a way for workers to balance the corporate powers that are arrayed against them. Corporations often band together in various associations, yet they often seem incredibly reluctant, if not viciously opposed, to workers doing the same thing. That's been an issue for literally hundreds of years in this country.

Capital loves to associate, but if labor tries to, capital opposes it, sometimes violently. 

There are also two other, more macro reasons. Unions often serve as a counterweight to the political power of conservative forces. That really explains why most conservative political forces today oppose unions — they know that unions are one of the last bulwarks against conservative corporate political power. Unions cut into corporate profits, they cut into corporate power over the workplace.

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The Plasters Union. Austin History Center.

The final reason ties directly into the theme of anti-poverty movements. Unions are one of the great anti-poverty tools of the past two centuries. Our solutions to poverty often revolve around SNAP benefits or TANF benefits or housing subsidies. All those are good things. I'm not opposed to any of them. However, if people made a living wage, we would not need these things. One way to get a living wage is to be a part of a union that demands a living wage. Most people in unions usually have higher wages, better benefits, and safer workplaces. Unions are one of the most effective ways to lift people out of poverty.

Historically, do you identify the New Deal as the moment where labor is really strengthened?

Certainly. There were all of these various attempts before the 1930s, but the 1930s is when we have this dramatic upswell in union organizing. This upswing defies models. Most models predict that when unemployment is high union organizing goes down because everyone is worried about losing their job. The boss, theoretically, has 50 people lining up outside to take your job if you're not happy with it. 

But, in the 1930s, as unemployment rates breached 25%, there was a huge swelling of organizing. Why is that? Well, that is up for debate, and it is a debate that I'm not sure we are ever going to resolve definitively. History is complex and messy and usually has many causes. We know that, for one, there were changes in labor law. There were new leaders like John L. Lewis. There was a tremendous amount of rank and file organizing. I always tell my students that in history the answer is always E, all of the above. The single cause explanation is usually wrong in politics, and it's almost always wrong in history. 

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The Bob Fitch Photography Archive.

What were the specific pieces of new labor law?  

There are two major pieces of legislation in the 1930s.

The first big law in the 1930s does not have to do with unions and the right to organize. It has to do with labor conditions. That is the Fair Labor Standards Act passed in 1938. That law is still with us today. That is why there is a legal minimum wage. That is why there is a 40 hour week. That is why there's a ban on child labor.

The other major law is the National Labor Relations Act, often called the Wagner Act after Senator Robert Wagner, the major sponsor of the bill. That law was passed in 1935. This the first time the US government goes on record to say that labor organizing is a good thing, and that the rights of workers to organize should be protected. 

The preamble of the Wagner Act speaks to two, I would argue, empirically proven things. One, it says that stronger unions lead to higher wages, which boosts consumption. Consumer spending represents 70 percent of the U.S. economy. We should want consumers to make a decent living so they can spend their money. Driving down real wages makes no sense in a consumer-based economy. But, we have spent the last 40 years undermining unions and undermining workers' attempts to achieve living wages. Corporate profits have skyrocketed and real wages have been almost stagnant for millions of workers. That's not a coincidence.

The Wagner Act also said that unions are also good for “labor peace.” The idea is that if everyone's not fighting and striking, it is good for the economy. The last thing you wanted was lots of strikes when you're trying to get an economy out of a depression. The Wagner Act set up the National Labor Relations Board, the NLRB, which exists to this day. The NLRB supervises elections for workers to choose whether they want a union to represent them or not, that's its major role. It also hears unfair labor practice complaints.

Fast forward to today – corporations have found the loopholes. Laws have certainly been weakened between the 1930s and now.  

Right. One of the many problems with the Wagner Act is that it's been weakened by subsequent laws. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 is one. It set up the “right to work” provisions. These laws basically say that if you work in a workplace that has a union contract, you get the benefits of the contract. The union must represent you. You get all the wage increases, all the benefits, without paying union dues. Right to Work laws create what is called a free-rider problem. Or, I could quote Mitt Romney and say it's a moocher problem. 

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Strike at Air Base. Hardin-Simmons University Library.

These laws are deliberately designed as a poison pill to unions. The states that have Right to Work laws are essentially saying to unions, don't come here because we are going to make it really, really hard for you to organize and really, really hard for you to collect your dues. 

The Fair Labor Standards Act is a fundamental law even today. But again, companies have found loopholes and ways to undermine this law. For example, if you are classified as an independent contractor, you're not an employee. 

How do you think the evolving nature of work, like the increasing number of people being labeled as independent contractors, changes organizing efforts? 

It is a huge challenge. I think if this nation would actually reform its labor law to both close the gaping loopholes and to have a law that reflects the economy of today and not the 1930s, those changes would be a really good thing for millions of workers. It is much more difficult to organize because many of those workers don't fall under even what little protection is afforded by the current labor law. 

In fact, there's been an ad recently for Uber, where a woman is talking about how much she loves being an Uber driver because she can set her own hours and run her own life. My wife and I started screaming at the TV, like really, lady, do you really believe that? You are getting screwed because as an independent contractor you're not subject to minimum wage or maximum hours. You don't have the right to organize. You don't get benefits. What's so great about that? But you know, that's the American way, I guess.

It's interesting to think too about how unions have been painted over history by the opposition. They are often spoken of as third parties when they are literally made up of the workers. 

Exactly. Third-party is literally the phrase that's used. They often say to the workers, you are our associates, we're a family, why do you want another party coming into our relationship? It's bull hockey. The boss has all the money. You have almost nothing, who's going to win in this battle? 

They also play into this idea of corruption. 

The opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act in 2009 came out with an ad I can only describe as evilly brilliant. They used actors from the Sopranos. If you remember, Tony Soprano and his boys were into a couple of local unions. One of the Sopranos was saying to a worker, sign this card, we are your friends. 

And I remember when that ad came out, I just looked at my wife and said, you know, those SOBs. This is brilliant. It played on the fear of corruption and played on the idea that signing a card is somehow less free than having an election where you have captive audience meetings.

Corruption has been a part of labor history. I don't ignore that. It's my responsibility as a historian to present the whole picture. But the corruption is not as bad as right-wing critics make it out to be. Critics love to take every story of corruption and blow it into an attack on the whole labor movement.

A lot of our research this month looks back at the Poor People's Campaign of 1968. I am curious, in 1968 as both unions and the Civil Rights Movement were seeing some political power, did they work together at all? Do they organize together? Do we see monetary support from one to the other? 

There's an excellent and growing literature on exactly that question. To turn a long reading list into a short answer, yes, though it tended to be mostly at the individual union level.

For example, the UAW, the United Auto Workers at that time, had Walter Ruther as its president. He was one of the great labor organizers of the mid 20th century and had started out as an avowed socialist. He was a huge supporter of the March on Washington. If you look at photos of the March on Washington, many of the signs say “for jobs and for freedom” and the signs have the union bug that says “sponsored by UAW.”

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Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. US National Archives.

So, the UAW was very supportive on a national political level. They put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the March on Washington. But even in the UAW, if you asked Black workers in the sixties, they often were very dissatisfied with the way their local union was treating Black workers, even though they knew that the union nationally was supporting Dr. King. It gets very complex from union to union and even within unions. 

It really comes down to the idea that if we only organize the white people, it's not going to go well, right? In 1919, there was a series of huge strikes in the packing houses of Chicago, but they only organized the white workers. Black workers, not surprisingly, had many of the worst jobs, like on the killing floor.

When you didn't organize the Black workers, the killing floor kept going, and, thus, the packing houses kept going.

So, in the 1930s, when United Packinghouse Workers Union went back and organized again with many Black, and left-wing leaders. They ended up having a remarkable record on organizing Black and white workers fighting against racial discrimination. 

The Vietnam War is a whole other thing. Some individual unions and some local unions had a lot of young members and very antiwar, but overall, the labor movement, the AFL-CIO was a very strong backer of anti-communism and the Vietnam War. They stuck behind Johnson and Nixon, even though individual unions disagreed. 

And do you think that was primarily out of loyalty to the political figures?

Well, there was a sense that this is a fight against communism and we're all anti-communists. I think your point is also a very good one. My guess is there was also a calculation like Lyndon Johnson is a liberal Democrat and he's good for unions.

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Bayard Rustin at AFL-CIO conference. 

In fact, a parallel debate went on the Civil Rights Movement. On April 4th, 1967, exactly a year before his death, Dr. King gave a famous speech at the Riverside Church in upper Manhattan, where he came out strongly against the Vietnam War. A lot of newspapers criticized him. A lot of white allies of the civil rights movement were furious at him. Even within his own inner circle, people were angry with him. Bayard Rustin, the man probably most responsible for organizing the March on Washington, said to King, Johnson is our friend. Why do you want to piss him off? If you want to say privately that the war's morally wrong. Okay. But do not do this.

I want to ask specifically about the Democrats and their alliance with labor. As you mentioned, Johnson was obviously a strong ally. When do you see liberalism and labor break? 

In fact, there's a historian by the name of Mike Davis who calls it The Barren Marriage — nothing was produced from that alliance.

high res

Austin History Center.

A lot of people say the tie between Democrats and labor goes back to Franklin Roosevelt. I think you can actually go back probably to Woodrow Wilson, the first democratic president that developed some overt connections with organized labor. But, it is true that during the 1930s organized labor and the Democratic party, because of those labor laws we discussed, became solidly intertwined. In fact, that was one of the selling points that Robert Wagner made to Roosevelt when pitching the Wagner Act. He argued that it would help Roosevelt organize millions of people and endear them to him. 

Those connections remained very strong all the way through the 1960s, they were strained somewhat over the Vietnam War, and then, in the late 70s under Carter and in the 90s under Clinton, there was a shift toward a more moderate Democratic strategy. I would argue that it's probably not a coincidence that both Carter and Clinton were Southern governors coming from southern states that were not strong bastions of labor.

Since then, the Democratic party has done a lot more of talking the talk than walking the walk.

They say, of course, we're pro-union, of course, we believe in unions, but there is not a lot of substance to back up their claims. 

There was an attempt to reform labor law under Carter. He supported it, but he didn't really break knuckles and it died in a Senate filibuster. The same thing happened early in the Obama Administration with the Employee Free Choice Act. Obama also supported the Act, but didn't push for it. And this was early in Obama's term. There were 60 Democrats in the Senate. If he'd gone to every Democrat and really pushed, maybe, something would have happened. People often talk about how during the protests in Madison, Wisconsin against Governor Walker, Obama really didn't give a full endorsement of the protests. And he never went up to Madison, even though he was begged to by some people in the labor movement. So...

It seems like an issue that compounds itself because as laws remain weak, as union membership continues to decline, it becomes less of a substantial voting block, which makes it less politically salient for politicians to go after.

Exactly. That is what the right wants to accomplish. The only way to stop it is by pushing for better reform of labor law. The Democrats will pay lip service to the idea, but they haven't invested the political capital. 

I've had these discussions here in my home state of North Carolina. I push people in the Democratic party to try to build the labor movement. It is extremely weak here and has been for decades, if not centuries, but there are ways to make it stronger now. We're not going to become Detroit of the 1950s, but we could be stronger. It would almost certainly be to the benefit of Democrats, yet they have up until recently shown little interest. I was part of a group way back in 2008 that met with some of the leaders of the state legislature, and one guy literally said to us, "If you can get me the votes, okay." I felt like screaming! You're the legislative leader, it's your job to get the votes, not ours.

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Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. US National Archives

The progressive wing of the Democratic party gets it. And they know that if you rebuild a labor movement, today's labor movement is going to look different. The average worker today is not a steelworker. It's not a 50-year-old guy with a lunch bucket. It's a 30-year-old single mom working at McDonald's. Organize them! It's not easy, but you should go where the workers are!

How have political alliances and political participation changed since the break between the Democrats and the working class? 

How we define who's working class is up for debate. Put five historians and sociologists in a room and we'll all throw things at each other.

Nobody can agree on who is working class.

But voting among people of lower-income, if you want to look at it that way, has declined in certain areas. Union households have increasingly shifted away from the Democrats. The majority still vote Democrat, but it's a higher and higher percentage who vote Republican each year. 

That actually shifted a little bit back to Biden. I mean, I would argue Biden ran the most openly pro-union presidential campaign since maybe Hubert Humphrey or George McGovern of '68 and '72. Or maybe Walter Mondale of '84. Biden has a record of being pro-union, with very strong links to the firefighters union. This was a Democratic campaign that mentioned unions more and more. It may have been a symbolic pitch made in order to get some of these voters to come back, but I also think that Biden is sympathetic to the voices within the party who are saying that we should rebuild the labor movement.

It's kind of like the old expression, "we'll do well by doing good."

If it is good for people, and if we get more voters in our column, why would that be a bad thing?