What the Labor Movement Has to Do to Become a Major Force Again

This article was commissioned as part of "American Labor at a Crossroads: New Thinking, New Organizing, New Strategies," a conference presented on January 15, co-sponsored by the Albert Shanker Institute, The Sidney Hillman Foundation, and The American Prospect. (View agenda here.)  Find our "Labor at a Crossroads" series here.

Is it possible for Americans to ever again bring the “labor question” to the forefront of their thinking about our economy and political culture? The phrase today resonates only with historians, yet for over a half century, from the late 19th century to the era of the Great Depression, it was a central analytical category in American public life. 

At its narrowest, it concerned what elites believed to be the necessity to mitigate the regular civil disruptions of the most militant labor movement in the Western world. At its most broad and socially creative, the labor question considered the essential relationship between the great waged work force and the nation’s politics, economics and, most importantly, workplaces: the phrase, “industrial democracy” was often linked to discussions of the labor question. Presidential candidates brought it up unasked. Woodrow Wilson made it central to his statement to Congress (what presidents now personally deliver as their State of the Union address) in 1919. Following the Second World War, the labor question effectively vanished from public discourse, but a variant of it was found in Harry Truman’s focus on “the promotion of greater harmony between labor and management” as the most important priority of his 1947 State of the Union address. Truman’s concern was understandable—because in 1946, 10 percent of the American workforce had gone on strike, the greatest strike wave in American history.

Of course, the labor question of that now vanished era referred almost entirely to white manufacturing, mining, building trade and transportation workers—the classic stereotype of the unionized worker. There were women and African-American workers who were union members, of course, but the cultural and political understanding of unionism marginalized those workers (and citizens) until the social justice movements of the 1960s and afterwards forced their attention upon the House of Labor. If the labor question is ever to be resurrected, it will be reformulated to encompass a cross-gender multi-racial and ethnic workforce dedicated to the ideal (if not yet the reality) of full egalitarianism. If it is asked again, the labor question of the future will be put forth under the banner of a broad civic nationalism, not the ethno-nationalist constraints of a century ago.

And beginning now, labor has the opportunity, albeit still a long shot, to bring a new version of the labor question to the nation’s attention once again. Union density has been declining for 60 years, yet labor’s demographic composition is more diverse than ever (as demonstrated by the attendance at the “American Labor at a Crossroads” conference). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, men are represented only slightly more than women in today’s unions (11.9 percent of employed men are union members; 10.5 percent of employed women). There was a much larger difference in 1983 (24.7 percent of men; 14.6 percent of women). Similarly, a higher percentage of African American workers are now union members than are white workers (13.6 percent of blacks; 11 percent of whites), and Latino and Asian American workers are more represented than ever before, albeit at lower percentages.


Since the cultural disappearance of the labor question, American unions have missed two opportunities to reignite it. The first was the period beginning with the failure of the CIO’s ambitious organizing campaign, “Operation Dixie”, which began confidently in 1946 but petered out a few years later, and ending with the more egregious failure to even try to organize black and white workers in the South during the high point of the Civil Rights movement in the early- to mid-1960s. Operation Dixie is understood to be a great missed opportunity. The CIO (and even, to a lesser degree, the AFL) put enormous resources behind an effort to break the racially segregated system of wage exploitation that undergirded Southern apartheid. The white Bourbon elite relentlessly red- and race-baited labor’s great postwar project and decisively defeated it.

Yet labor’s lack of social imagination and courage during the '60s looms even more fatefully, because the conditions for union activism were more compelling. There isn’t a God of Clio who, upon the request of the oppressed, perfectly correlates social justice movements. Operation Dixie started about fifteen years before the Civil Rights movement gained its organizing purchase throughout the South around the issues of desegregation and, later, voting rights. Elites, led by President Lyndon B. Johnson, famously rewarded this militant mass movement with the great victories of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. But what if an aroused labor movement had joined forces with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to press the issue of worker’s rights, too? What if progressive, anti-racist union leaders like Walter Reuther and college volunteers had traveled the South with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders, and worked with the great civil rights organizers like Robert Moses to connect the civil rights and labor struggles as one great undertaking in the service of liberty and justice for Southern working class black Americans and as many white Southern workers as had the guts to join them? We saw a bit of this, of course, in the last great fight of Dr. King’s life, the 1968 Memphis Sanitation strike. The resistance of Southern white supremacy to a second Operation Dixie would have been fierce and violent. But it was already fierce and violent in its opposition to civil rights—and it was defeated. We will never know what might have happened and whether the Johnson administration and Congress might have been forced to provide legislative support to the labor movement, too. But there was no concerted, comprehensively staffed, funded, and strategized effort by the AFL-CIO of George Meany or its major affiliated unions. Just to mention Meany—who refused to endorse the 1963 March on Washington (which was also a march for jobs!)—is to know why this never happened, even If the responsibility extends well beyond Meany himself. 

In this March 28, 1968 file photo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Ralph Abernathy, right, lead a march on behalf of striking Memphis, Tennessee, sanitation workers. Just days later, King was assassinated during a return trip to Memphis.

The second missed opportunity occurred during the early 1970s, what might be called the end of the historical period of the “long '60s.” Fed by disparate yet connected currents of social unrest and anti-authoritarianism, alienated Vietnam vets, post-college New Left activists, African Americans radicalized by the civil rights movement and then the black power movement, and women politicized by second wave feminism, took their militancy into—and out of—the workplace, generating the most potent strike wave since 1946.

In 1970, 200,000 postal workers undertook a wildcat strike, not sanctioned by their unions, in big cities around the country. That same year, 400,000 UAW members at General Motors struck for over two months, paralyzing what was then the largest company in the world. In 1972, at the “Woodstock of the working class”, the workers at the Lordstown Ohio GM plant—said to be the fastest, most brutalizing assembly line in the world—struck for three weeks and cost the company $150 million. The United Farm Workers’ great effort to organize the California grape and lettuce fields also peaked during this brief several years. The Farah Clothing strike and boycott in El Paso resulted in the unionization of that company in 1974. The labor actions against the textile company, J.P. Stevens, won union certification also in 1974. Several years later, that victory led to a collective bargaining agreement and a fictionalized version of the fight, the film, “Norma Rae.” Along with these union-vs.-company fights came dramatic intra-union efforts to democratize and energize the Mineworkers, the Teamsters, and the Steelworkers.

This fervor, as historian Jefferson Cowie relates in his great book, Stayin’ Alive, never quite congealed into something as powerful as the great strikes and fights of the 1930s. By the mid-70s—just as black workers started to enter the building trades and other workplaces—the economy collapsed and workers became pitted against one another for scarce jobs, rather than united against the boss.


Only now are the conditions for cosmopolitan social solidarity again ripe within a much smaller, yet heterogeneous labor movement. Could the labor question return, but in a different register? Nicholas Salvatore wrote in a still prescient and perceptive essay in the Winter, 1992 issue of Dissent, “The Decline of Labor: A Grim Picture, A Few Proposals,” that, “It is a profound irony of present circumstances that a labor movement that has been for so long pragmatic and narrow in enunciating its interests must now expand its vision if only to protect that narrower set of interests.” It’s even more urgent today that labor’s appeal must widen to include as many of the vast majority of non-union workers as possible. And this is all the more important for the still large public sector segment of the movement for the obvious reason that the general public is the “employer” that pays the wages and benefits of both public sector union members and union staff.

Yet before we consider the possibility of expanding the coalition of workers and citizens beyond the parochial yet powerful unionism that prevailed for decades, we must stop to consider what has been lost, and why restoring a version of it for our time is such a daunting, yet essential task. So, what has been lost is this: a large class of industrial workers in factories and mines who embodied a culture of union solidarity and consciousness. Although often circumscribed by race and gender, this union culture nevertheless empowered millions of workers and their families as employees and citizens.

While there were always tough, brave union women in teaching, retail, and textiles, at the center of the union movement when it had real power were manufacturing, mining, building trades, and transportation workers—almost all white men. There were millions and millions of them. And, particularly in the first two, large categories, they have disappeared never to return, not only in the U.S., but also throughout the entire advanced capitalist world. In the six decades since the American union movement peaked at around one-third of the workforce, unionization has declined significantly in pretty much every other advanced country, too. While the U.S. movement declined from about 34 percent of the workforce to the current 11 percent, labor in the U.K. peaked at 60 percent and descended to the current 25 percent during roughly the same period. Even Scandinavian union membership declined during this time. France and Spain have today a smaller percentage of union members than even the United States (although union contracts cover over half of French workers). As Lane Kenworthy points out in his book Social Democratic America, there are only five advanced countries in the world that still have union density over 40 percent, and in four of them, unions have the advantage of administrating their nation’s unemployment insurance programs.

What happened is well known: Either manufacturing was transferred to the emerging nations where it could be done more cheaply, or productivity increases dramatically reduced the number of manufacturing and mining workers needed to do the remaining work in the wealthier nations. (It’s important to remember that “manufacturing” hasn’t so much declined in the U.S. as a percentage of the total economy, as has manufacturing employment). 

American union supporters have an understandable tendency to focus on the unique obstacles to labor that occurred within our own historical trajectory. This makes it easy to believe a combination of a conservative assault, exemplified by Ronald Reagan’s firing of the PATCO workers, and labor’s own fecklessness and mediocrity are the reasons for its long slide from the heights of power and influence. Those didn’t help, of course, and the particulars of the U.S. narrative provide specificity and detail to the story. It’s also true that the American employer class is the most ruthlessly anti-union in the advanced world. But if only we could pin the whole thing on Reagan and Lane Kirkland! As it happened, labor throughout the entire advanced world has never recovered from the disappearance of millions of jobs in the core economic sectors of union strength. 


At the peak of that strength, in the aftermath of World War II, a massive labor movement in North America, Western Europe, and Australia, driven mostly by manufacturing and mining workers, empowered workers economically, politically, and culturally. Wages and benefits soared, major political parties of the center-left (be they the Democrats in the U.S., or social democratic or labor parties in Europe and Australia) depended upon the votes of their respective labor movements and, at the least, largely had to advocate for their interests. Depictions of working class solidarity and even quotidian lives were refracted through the mass media of radio, television, and film, itself a unifying influence upon the working class.

The United Steelworkers (USW), for example, was a vastly powerful union. In the early 1970s, when the U.S. population was one-third less than it is today, the union had 1.1 million members and helped set wage and benefit standards for millions of others. Not all of its members actually worked in steel (some worked in aluminum, copper, and other industries), but most of them did. In 1959, 600,000 USW members struck, probably the largest single strike in American history, requiring the intervention of the Eisenhower administration to settle.  Today, there are just 150,000 employees total in the American steel industry—union and non-union. The union’s challenge today is to scramble to organize a variety of workers who do not reflect its founding mission. That can, by definition, never provide the enormous leverage that came from having most of the steel industry under union contract.

And miners—workers and their communities—demonstrated to their fellow citizens in multiple countries the meaning of solidarity as an operative ethos. American and British mineworkers, time and again, indelibly displayed militant and unconditional loyalty in the defense of their jobs and way of life. These episodes were a recurrent lesson in communitarian connection and empathy that the rest of their nation’s population could not help but notice, if not always heed.

The United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) was 400,000 strong in the 1940s, when its members provided two-thirds of the energy needs of the country. Millions admired, but probably many millions more (including Harry Truman) hated the union’s imperious president, John L. Lewis. Yet perhaps only Truman himself and the chairman of the Federal Reserve wielded more economic power. One decade earlier, Lewis’s union had driven and funded the creation and organizing of the CIO, with such powerhouse new unions as the USWA and the United Auto Workers. Today, the UMWA has many more retirees than active members and its membership has fallen to less than one-tenth of what it was 70 years ago. In the U.K., the National Union of Mineworkers, through the leadership of the also formidable Arthur Scargill and several others before him, was perhaps even stronger than the UMWA was in the U.S. Following its defeat at the hands of Margaret Thatcher in the great strike of 1984-85, however, it essentially died.


With each passing year, the historical memory of these incubators of solidarity grows more faint. And the profound imperative to address climate change by reducing carbon emissions means that the image of the stalwart mineworker will never evoke union solidarity again. That reformulation is necessary—but something important and inspiring has been lost, too.

Thus the job of today’s labor movement, even amid the fears and anxiety about its chronic decline, is to create the conditions for what might someday be called a new version of the old institutional and historical memory once retained by these millions of manufacturing and mining workers (and still sustained by their successors, however reduced in numbers). Many newly organized immigrant union workers bring with them to the United States histories of labor and political activism in Mexico, Central America, and parts of Asia and Africa. They and others contemporary union members will have to construct a new, cosmopolitan culture of solidarity here in the U.S. SEIU and UNITE HERE have been successful in fostering such a new solidarity in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Seattle, and the San Francisco Bay Area, but more is required—more consciousness and more members.

This new solidarity will be premised on what the political philosopher, Nancy Fraser, has called two distinct, but intertwined “paradigms of justice”: “redistribution” and “recognition.” Redistribution is self-explanatory, but recognition is a pithy way of cataloging the great post-Sixties struggles around issues of, as Fraser puts it, “cultural domination”, “being rendered invisible”, and being “disrespected.” These recognitional movements around racial, gender, and sexual identity must, as Fraser suggests, meld with the class-driven fights for economic redistribution to form an encompassing social movement.

We see the promise of uniting these two paradigms in the post-Ferguson demonstrations against police violence in the African-American community, in the fights of low-wage fast food and Walmart workers for both higher wages and respect, and in the increasing focus on issues of economic inequality spearheaded by Elizabeth Warren, and reflected in the surprisingly large sales and attention given to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.  And we should well recall that the great recognitional slogan of that last fight of Dr. King’s life was on behalf of the redistributional demands of the Memphis sanitation workers: “I am a man.”

In the spirit of Memphis, the determination to represent the entire working class is the best chance labor has had in over 40 years to put the now forgotten, but once pervasive “labor question” before the nation again. I wouldn’t bet on it; there is too much in the labor movement of what a friend of mine calls “magical thinking”—imagining small victories leading to large gains. But there is a structural logic to converging trendlines in the economy, the political culture and the diverse energies of labor itself. This logic makes it possible to conceive, at the least, something different and better, if not yet bigger, for labor than it has had for a very long time. That’s far from enough, but it’s a start.

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