Happy Fourth of July everyone! The first time we celebrate the birth of the nation with an African-American president.
I'm excited to report that my new Kindle DX arrived yesterday (early verdict: very cool). I toyed with the idea of buying, as my first book, Infinite Jest, but I couldn't bring myself to take the plunge and begin my first novel since the mid-1990s. Instead I bought Grand Expectations, James T. Patterson's history of the U.S. from 1945 to 1974. Chapter Two is about the state of the labor movement at the beginning of the period. Lots of interesting stuff, as this was really the peak of the labor movement in the U.S., with a high of 35% of non-agricultural workers in unions in 1945, and one in fourteen workers participating in work stoppages in 1946.
What's interesting to me is that even then, you can see signs that labor's power was tenuous. Massive strikes had thin support among Americans. There is a remarkable recounting of Truman's response to a potentially crippling railworker strike in which he marches to Capitol Hill to give an address. Truman planned to propose legislation that would allow him to draft striking workers into the Armed Forces in the event that a strike would create "emergency" conditions. With his intentions widely known, Congress gave him a standing ovation upon entering the House. Before the speech ended, Truman had been handed a note relaying the news that the railworkers' union had backed down. (Even more remarkably, a draft of a proposed radio address the night before that his aides squashed ended, "Let's put transportation and production back to work, hang a few traitors, and make our country safe for democracy.")
Remember, this was a pro-New Deal president--the populist "Give 'em Hell Harry"--with a Democratic Congress.
Labor basically got nowhere with its legislative agenda during this period--conservative Democrats from the South and West and pro-business Republicans held the balance of power. Republicans won control of both houses in 1946, and Congress overrode Truman's veto the next year to pass the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act.
Meanwhile, by 1950, labor leaders had basically reached a truce with capital: union members would get cost-of-living adjustments to their pay and increasingly generous benefits, paid for via price increases levied on consumers. Non-union members were basically S.O.L.
Many progressives seem to believe that the weakness of labor today is mainly a consequence of the Reagan Revolution and soft-spined Clintonites. But the following chart, based on OECD data, should disabuse them of this fantasy:
Note first that in 1960, the U.S. and Canada had less unionization than even the other Anglophonic countries (also true of other western European countries except Italy and France). Second, note that by the time Reagan took office, unionization in the U.S. had already dropped from 31 percent to 22 percent. Finally, note that unionization began declining in the other countries between the mid-1970s and the early-1980s. Unionization has also fallen in most of western Europe, where it peaked in the Netherlands and Norway by the early 1960s, in France and Austria by the late 1960s, in Switzerland by 1976, in Italy in 1976, Portugal in 1977, Germany in 1978, Denmark in 1983, etc. Finally, note how much the cross-national differences narrowed over time vs. 1975 or 1980. How did Reagan defeat the unions in those other countries?
So why the decline if not politics? I'm no expert on this question, but I'll try and speculate a bit in my next post. Meantime, leave a comment if you want to weigh in (eventually I'll have a comments section publicly displayed, but that's in progress).