In the last five years, right wing politicians have successfully imposed restrictions on unions, mainly limiting what unions can bargain over, and the right of unions to automatically collect dues. The vulnerability of unions to these attacks lies in the fact that over the last 30 years, most unions have made huge concessions to the bosses and local and state governments. The result of this policy is that unions have largely destroyed the confidence of working people, which is the only basis for a real fight back today.
Before the 1930s, unions in the United States were all but illegal. They had to face police repression, and attacks by thugs hired by the companies. All of this changed after the huge strike wave of the 1930s. In the year 1934 alone, some 18,000 strikes involving 1,470,000 workers swept across the U.S. Workers occupied their factories in “sit-down” strikes. They used other militant tactics including mobile pickets – groups of workers moving place to place – in fleets of cars, or city-wide or general strikes, and mass-organizing of the unemployed. With tactics like these, millions of workers in industries from auto to steel and longshore, successfully forced the recognition of their new unions.
From 1934-1937, the U.S. government and a section of the bosses came to understand that a different strategy would be necessary to contain the workers’ revolt. They feared that the most militant sections of the working class were becoming more radical in the course of the battles they were fighting and winning. So the government passed a law to legalize but regulate the unions. The new law, the National Labor Relations Act, required companies to bargain with unions selected in a vote by a majority of the workers.
After this legal victory, the workers’ newly won rights began to be chipped away by the government. In 1938, the Supreme Court ruled that in a strike the boss could hire permanent replacements (scabs). Then in 1939 the Supreme Court followed up by outlawing sit-down strikes, the main tactic that workers had used in previous strikes.
By then, most union officials were telling workers that militant tactics were obsolete. Instead of mobilizing, union leaders told workers to be partners with employers and increasingly relied on negotiations and the courts. Union officials started disciplining workers who resisted. These efforts accelerated during the largest strike wave in American History, which began as World War Two was ending. In 1946, 4,600,000 workers participated 4,985 strikes costing 116,000,000 worker-days of production. Whole industries were shut down with mass pickets. Oakland had a general strike in support of department store clerks.
In response, the government passed the Taft Hartley act, restricting most strike tactics. Mass picketing was made illegal, along with striking for union recognition, and strikes over social and political issues, as well as general strikes of all workers in a city. The Taft-Hartley act made it easier for corporations to tie unions up in lawsuits. It authorized the President to stop big strikes by imposing a mandatory 90-day “cooling off period.” The law also made it illegal for elected union officers to be members of socialist or communist groups, who were often the real leaders of these strikes.
By legalizing the unions, the government and the bosses put them under control and limited their actions. Today we are living through the consequences. In a time when the employers and their government are waging an even more intense war on the working class, workers are given no perspective to fight the current attacks other than electing supposedly union and worker-friendly politicians. Meanwhile the bosses and their government have accelerated their attacks to the situation of today of undermining the unions they once legalized and incorporated into their system.
These attacks will only escalate until workers in the 21st century revive the radical spirit and militant tactics which broke the employer’s power in the middle of the 1930s. But this time, as workers rediscover ways to build organizations which mobilize the power of millions of workers, they can also find ways to keep the power they create from being taken away.