What is the point of unions in a 21st century world? In the first 75% of the 20th century, unions fought for worker’s rights: decent pay, relief from 7 day work weeks of 80 to 100 hours, safe working conditions, to not be discriminated against (blacks and women often received 30-70% of a white man). These as well as other injustices were perpetuated by companies that we would find hard to believe in this modern world.
In the early 1900’s it would have been the exception for an employer to take any responsibility for an employee who was injured, killed or permanently crippled on the job. Workers of all skill levels were considered expendable. Strikes, both spontaneous and planned were common. The business class often occupied the judiciary and local legislative bodies. Consequently, laws favored business greatly and the police, local militia and sometimes the military would be called to intervene. And intervene they did, usually with brutal and deadly results. Business was opposed to any attempt to organize and went to great lengths to discourage union membership. The business elite were convinced that their right to huge profits superseded even the most basic of worker’s rights.
Pay cuts were common. A sign by the exit of a garment factory read: If you don’t come to work on Sunday, don’t come in on Monday. Safety standards didn’t exist, mills, construction work, oil drilling, and railroads had hundreds or even thousands of deaths in a year and many more injuries. Countless lives were cut short by toxic chemicals in the work place. Many lives would have been spared at the famous Triangle Shirt Factory fire, if the foreman had simply left the fire escape door unlocked. He wanted to be sure that no breaks were taken. When circumstances became too much to bear, strikes were seen as the only means to improve conditions. The reality is that strikes WERE the only way to fight back. Each year, there were hundreds and sometimes thousands of strikes across America. Some succeeded in having the demands for better pay and better conditions met. Many did not.
Many organizers spent time in jail. A famous organizer named Joe Hill created so much trouble for business that they arranged for him to be accused of capitol murder. He was executed by firing squad. New immigrants from Europe were taken advantage of and used as scab labor to break strikes. Race relations improved somewhat between blacks and whites, after all they were in the same boat, except that blacks were commonly paid much less than even the meager wages of whites. Business saw this as a threat and did whatever they could to incite racial enmity. In one case, to keep them from communicating at all, the Irish miners and black miners were housed separately and had separate entrances to the mine.
The socialists made gains during much of the 20th century. The class struggle against the capitalists was a cause a lot of people could relate to. In the meantime, the likes of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, John Jacob Astor, Charles Tiffany, Andrew Mellon, Phillip Armour amassed huge fortunes. Near monopolies in railroads, oil, banking, steel, coal, and commodities were dominated by these business elite. Many of their descendants are still rich and powerful people to this day.
Corporations had only one goal: profit. To facilitate maximum profits, whatever can be done to minimize expenses will be considered. Labor laws have come a long way in protecting workers. 40 hour work weeks, over-time pay, the right to unionize and collectively bargain, as well as the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) rules are the primary protections workers fought for that turned around the injustices of earlier times. Other regulations such as the rules of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also contribute to worker safety as well as the public health at large.
One might argue that current laws and these protections being ingrained in our society to such an extent that the unions have outlived their usefulness. However, all someone has to do is to look at some recent events to know that the profit motive is very much alive and well and still needs to be balanced with worker rights. Corporations had the chance to self-regulate and it was a total failure. In fact, I would argue that if underfunded, the various agencies charged with enforcing the rules cannot adequately keep the corporations in check. The example of the Massey coal mine tragedy, where non-compliance to safety rules caused the deaths of 29 miners, speaks to this issue.
The notion of de-regulation pushed by conservative politicians (and the corporations that fund their campaigns) is (as the old saying goes) to leave the guarding of the henhouse to the fox. One need look no further than our current financial struggles, precipitated by a lack of regulation on banking, investment giants and mortgage companies. If corporations were of a mind to follow safe and just employment practices as well as not deceive the public they wouldn’t need the army of lobbyists employed to sway public policy.
In a more perfect world, we wouldn’t need to be protected from disinformation (lies), profiteering and the outright menace provided by some corporations. The Koch brothers would not have spent years blocking the designation of formaldehyde as a carcinogen. How many people have died so that they could maximize profit? Dow Chemical wouldn’t have operated so negligently that it had a safety failure and caused the immediate death of 3,000 people, 8000 subsequent gas related deaths and countless birth defects in Bhopol, India. If a corporation was capable of functioning as a person with a conscience, Dow would have made sure safety standards were maintained or at the very least made reparations 27 years ago to the people affected. Instead, they abandoned the chemical plant with no reasonable clean-up, leaving the residence to fend for themselves with only a token settlement.
Until corporations and the sociopaths that run them can show us that they care about their employees and care about leaving behind a habitable planet, we must have strong unions and enforceable health, safety and environmental regulations to protect us. As we have seen, anything less invites immoral behavior, economic slavery and ultimately disaster.
If you are interested in further reading, I recommend The People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn.
My name is David and I operate the site: Our World Report. I split my time between the U.S. and the Philippines. I am committed to contributing in a positive way to the progressive movement & invite other progressives to post at my site. You can follow me on twitter at #ourworldreport and I will respond in kind. Thanks.