It's Labor Day as I write this and ponder wistfully the state of organized labor in the United States. I've always been pro-labor, partly out of sheer genetics. My grandfather was a member of the International Brotherhood of Machinists for more than 50 years, and I'm an associate member of the United Steelworkers.
Despite my beliefs, however, I can't manage much enthusiasm about the current state of the labor movement. Organized labor, partly by its own doing but largely because big business and government long ago joined forces against it, is approaching the point of irrelevance in American society.
Historians tend to date the birth of the labor movement with the Pullman strike of 1894, although I might go back a little further, at least to the unrest in the Pennsylvania coal fields in the 1870s. On the other end of the timeline, the collapse of labor's reign as counterweight to big business is most frequently pegged to President Ronald Reagan's crushing of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in 1981. But I think labor started to die sooner — in 1947, years before it reached the pinnacle of its strength, with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act.
Taft-Hartley, authored by Senator Robert “Mr. Republican” Taft and Congressman Fred A. Hartley, invalidated a host of worker protections included in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Among its most insidious provisions, Taft-Hartley allowed “right to work” measures that have outlawed organized labor for all practical purposes in (so far) 23 states. Taft-Hartley, passed by the GOP-majority “do-nothing Congress” over Harry Truman's veto, tipped the labor-management balance irrevocably in favor of what Franklin Delano Roosevelt aptly referred to as “organized money.”
There is no law parallel to Taft-Hartley that allows unions to frustrate and invalidate the rights of corporations to organize. For every fast-shrinking labor union today, there are a dozen burgeoning organized-money groups — The National Association of Manufacturers, the American Petroleum Institute, the National Mining Association — free to operate in every state, but especially in Washington, D.C.
The impact of Taft-Hartley can't be understated. It ensured that every labor-management dispute after 1947 was a cruel mismatch — the equivalent of a football game between the New York Giants and Yale, with the Giants spotted two or three touchdowns before the kickoff.
As I've noted, the erosion of labor's political power wasn't immediately evident. But it was steady. And it became crystal clear when Reagan took on PATCO, fired its entire membership, replaced them with scabs and got away with it, more popular than ever. By then, organized money had spent three decades demonizing “union bosses,” depicting union members as lazy, selfish, and unpatriotic, and sowing deep, corrosive divisions among public unions, private-sector unions, and non-union workers.
Since Taft-Hartley, the most important factor in the triumph of organized money over organized labor has been, well… money . After all, every big-business lobby — the US Chamber of Commerce, for example — includes dozens of millionaires and billionaires. By comparison, the highest annual dues paid by any union member in America is a little over $800. The average is closer to $500.
This isn't even the Giants vs. Yale. It's the Giants vs. the Sisters of Mercy.
In the 2010 mid-term election, before the Supreme Court's pro-lobbyist Citizens United decision could be fully exploited, the big spenders among organized money groups — like the Chamber of Commerce, American Crossroads, the Club for Growth, etc. — outspent the richest labor unions by roughly $145 million to $39 million.
But that margin — less than 4-to-1 — was a pretty close game. More typical of the Giants vs. Yale syndrome was this year's attempted recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. In that election, the winning team from organized money outspent organized labor, 7-to-1. Even more significantly, exit polls show that 38 percent of union members voted to keep the governor. These masochistic union members voted for Walker despite his proud leadership of a national movement, funded by organized money, whose purpose is to eliminate every right that workers had literally died for in the years leading up to 1935, including the fundamental right to collective bargaining.
When union leaders can't trust the loyalty of almost two-fifths of their members, it's pretty safe to conclude that organized labor ain't organized any more.