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Unions Are Not The Villains

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There’s a lot of things that most of us take for granted: the eight-hour working day, child labour laws, overtime and workplace safety. But if you were to leave North America you would find that outside of western Europe and one or two other countries we are the exception not the rule.

”Where do you think these came from… generous and benevolent bosses?…
Utah Phillips: Fellow Workers

In Canada, United States, and Europe, the last couple of decades of the 19th century marked the real shift in economic life from agrarian to mass industry. The process had started before that, but it wasn’t until after the American Civil War that it really began to flourish. This was the time which saw the formation of most of the countries of Europe as we know them today, and the first real period of extended peace for most of the industrial world.

The invention of the steam engine had made the Atlantic crossing easier and international markets more accessible. When it was combined with the proliferation of rail across the United States and Canada, the domestic markets were now only days apart. For the United States the timing couldn’t have been better.

The Civil War had devastated the country in a lot of ways, but it had also hastened its industrialisation. Both sides had utilized the new technologies available during the war for the production of arms, the movement of troops, and for battles on the water. Rail lines had been laid for troops which now could be used for shipping, and the steel-hulled battleships had proved effective enough that steam and steel would soon be replacing wind and wood in the shipping industry.

But the work was dangerous and dirty. There were no rules governing how an employer treated the workers under his control. In a lot of cases conditions and jobs were little less then indentured slavery.

Small children were employed to go into the mines that were too tight for full-grown men. If you got sick you lost your job. If you were injured working you were doomed. There wasn’t even any guarantee that you’d get paid. Sometimes if you were unlucky enough you could end up owing your employer money.

If they supplied you with a shack to live in and gruel twice a day it would be docked from your wages. If you were being paid on a quota system and for some reason, anything from equipment failure to bad weather, you fell short of your mark, you wouldn’t get your full pay and couldn’t cover the cost of your board. It could take a person months to work out from under that debt. If you didn’t pay you could get arrested.

It was against this background that the first unions were formed. These weren’t like the unions we know today where the heads look and talk just like the head of corporations. They hadn’t gone to school and studied management techniques; they were coal miners and lumber “beasts” (so called because in those days they didn’t have cabins they just slept on the floors of the forests like the beasts of the woods), factory workers and stevedores.

They were people who were tired of risking death every time they went to work, who wanted to be paid fair value for their labour, who wanted a future for their children, and wanted to do more than just work all day long. They wanted quality of life; they wanted bread and roses.

Of course the heroes of American industry, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and the rest of the “Robber Barons” as they came to be known were not all that keen on sharing the pie with others. They used every means at their disposal in an effort to keep the workers under their thumbs. If you thought that modern-day corporations have the ear of the governments, well it’s nothing to what it was like back then.

In Colorado the state legislature had passed a law guaranteeing an eight-hour work day for the coal miners. But it turned out to be one thing to pass the law and another to enforce it. When the mines owned by Rockefeller refused to comply, the state government did nothing.

When the unions went on strike to try to make the companies obey the law, the militia was sent out to bust up the strike, not by the government but by Rockafeller, who owned the state militia. The unions were fighting against a deck that was heavily stacked against them.

Pinkerton’s security was created as a private police force by Rockefeller for the sole purpose of violence against the unions. They would beat up organizers, burn down the homes of striking miners, and shoot striking workers. If the unions fought back at all, or a Pinkerton’s man was hurt in retaliation, they would be arrested. But the Pinkerton’s men were allowed to get away with murder, literally.

To prevent organizers from speaking in public, ordinances would be passed prohibiting free speech. Any time someone would get up to talk about workers rights, he or she would be arrested. When one town tried this the union got together 4,000 workers, some of whom could speak no other English than “My fellow workers”, and had them all try to give a speech. After they were all arrested, the people of the town refused to pay to feed them in the variety of jails that had to be created, and the law was repealed.

In spite of the heavy odds against them, the unions fought on and through sheer perseverance and numbers they began to win their fights. In the end it would usually come down to the bosses realizing that paying the workers a little more, and working them a little less was still more profitable then not having them work at all.

These brave men and women who fought and died so that people who work in factories today are safe and paid fair value for their labour are largely ignored by the histories of our countries. If they are mentioned, it’s only as dangerous people who precipitated acts of violence such as the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, which descended into a riot when the mounted police were ordered to disperse the marchers.

We write up and idealize the men who tried desperately to ensure that people would be treated like cattle and slaves with no rights and dignity. Even the term “Robber Baron” is used in affection. They’ve left tokens of their benevolence bearing their names for posterity: Carnegie Hall, The Rockefeller Centre and so on.

Edifices that were paid for with the blood and sweat of thousands of men and women who died from black lung and exhaustion in their twenties, from inhaling the dust in the weaving mills, and being shot on the picket line. These aren’t places of culture and beauty, they are tombs to the unknown soldiers in the wars for the rights of workers.

Maybe unions aren’t what they used to be. Maybe some of them are now as corporate and corrupt as the people they are supposed to be fighting. Some of them are probably even in cahoots with management to swindle the people they supposedly represent. But don’t let that diminish the work of their predecessors.

The next time you hear some corporate type slamming a union for forcing him to close his plant, or Wal Mart closes a store rather than let it’s employees unionize. Ask yourself what are they trying to deny the people who work for them. More and more the workers in North America are facing the real threat of seeing their jobs disappear out form under them as corporations close factories and reopen them where there are no laws governing their behaviour.

Unions are still being made out to be the bad guys just as they were a hundred years ago. Take a look at what was happening then and tell me who was the bad guy. Maybe we should be asking the same questions about today’s circumstances. Too many times unions have given concessions on salary in exchange for job security only to see the factory closed and the jobs moved anyway.

A fifty-something person who has worked in the same factory for most of their life facing the prospect of starting all over again has entered into a personal version of hell. Most of these new jobs being created pay far less than what they had previously made and are primarily in fields in which they have no experience.

Since no one else seems to care about them or their situation it is falling once again to the unions to fight for the rights of workers who are being tossed aside like dead wood. What’s so villainous about trying to guarantee security for people who have worked hard all their lives? Isn’t there some possibility that the blame could lie with those closing the factories? Think about it.
Edited:NB,REF:Aaman

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • http://toddyarling.com todd

    I am no fan of unions by any stretch of the imagination, in as much as they rely upon coercion and violence to intimidate and force their will upon private property owners.

    Having said that, some of the history of the means that the industrialists used to fight them would make some eye opening reading for most of today’s history-challenged conservatives.

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Unions are what one might call a “necessary evil” in today’s world. For the most part, they aren’t needed. Except that, of course, if they didn’t exists, they would soon be needed!

    It’s like a cold war — companies tend to mostly treat workers reasonably well (relatively speaking) mostly because of the history of unions. Unions can’t go away, because we might just return to the bad old days. In the meantime, the unions sometimes overstep and make demands out of bounds with market realities, cutting off their long-term future in order to satisfy short-term desires.

    ANyway, that’s my opinion.

  • Mike Stevens

    Unions were needed in a time when the government had yet to take up the cause of workers rights. However today in a regulated society where laws are in place to control the actions of employers with more than 15 employees, union are a scam.

    No union leader represents union members, they represent the union. Union members are many times too uninformed to realize that the “union Rights” they enjoy are actually supported by goverment regulations.

    I for one don’t need anyone to represent me or my interests in my workplace. Especially if that person is paid 100 times my annual salary. Union leaders are no different that corporate executives. Their goal is to increase income and line their pockets.

    Unions take from those in their ranks with the least to give. If union leaders really were about the workers, they would work for a living wage and donate their time for the cause.

    A union is not a charity. A charity works for the good of the people it puports to help. The money from a charity goes to the people needing the help. When you go to the local Salvation Army they don’t make you pay for assistance. A union make you pay them to help you get “representation”.

    Union prey directly on the people they claim to represent. At least corporations give their workers a check, Unions take the checks from the workers.

    Who is really the evil one?

  • Nancy

    Corporations are still at it: paying out obscenely generous bonuses & salaries to already-overcompensated executives while cutting thousands of jobs & denuding workers of basic benefits in order to line their own pockets at the expense of their labor. Current case in point: US Air, which negotiated severe cuts in benefits, & lied & threatened their way out of having to pay retirement on thousands of workers – shifting it onto the taxpaying public (i.e., the same workers they’ve just screwed) – and then turning around and insisting they “need” to pay out huge salaries, benefits, bonuses, & options to the executives so they’ll stay to run the company. For what? so they can continue to run it into the ground? Further case in point: the executives of a large corporation that recent sold off their stock in their own company just before it lost value. Not as badly as Enron, but the same scenario; but they couldn’t be prosecuted, for technical reasons. And then there are the noble souls who ran Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia, and the other megacorporations involved in corporate scandal recently. Corporate greed & corruption allowed them to run wild & destroy hundreds of thousands of their workers’ lives, jobs, holdings, investments, retirements. Where are they? Well…Bernie Ebbers MAY go to jail…or he may not. It’s still up in the air. Either way, he got to keep enough money for a generous retirement (something his workers didn’t get to do), and a comfortable existance meanwhile complete w/house & cars for him & his wife who shared his ill-gotten gains – again, something his employees didn’t have a choice about. The two assholes who used their corporation as a private piggy bank also MAY possibly go to jail … or they may not, since they can appeal forever & remain out for years. They also got to keep houses, cars, property, funds to enable them to live, if not quite on the scale they used to, certainly better then any of the employees whose lives they ruined. Corporations have even descended to murder, and it hasn’t been that uncommon, in order to keep their fat fists firmly on the money bags & retain the power to starve their labor as they saw fit…and not just in the 19th century, either. I could go on and on and on, but there isn’t enough room & my bp is already over limit.

    Companies only treat workers well because they are forced to, because the laws generally mandate that they do so, laws to which these same corporations were dragged, kicking & screaming, virtually at gunpoint, by federal prosecution at the behest of congress, which did so only because congressmen are very good at knowing when to throw a former bankroll & erstwhile supporter to the wolves to save themselves. And these in turn were pressured only because of public outrage & the courage & desperation of workers who had finally had enough. They are at it again, little by little, creeping back to regain the power to abuse in newer, more insidious ways, and blustering & protesting their “innocence” when caught with their hands blatantly in the til, as it were, a la Walmart caught employing illegals to clean their stores – because illegals don’t dare to complain, and have to take what little Walmart deigned to dole out to them, as it does it’s other rank & file workers.

    Corporations are NEVER going to relax their campaign to abuse & cheat, & workers – including the public at large – can not afford to relax fighting corporations’ hypocrisy & vulpine greed.

  • Mike Stevens

    Nancy,

    Please get informed. Wal-Mart didn’t employ the alien workers, a contractor who had hiring responsibility did the hiring.

    Wal-Mart fired the contractor upon notification.

  • billy

    “Unions were needed in a time when the government had yet to take up the cause of workers rights.”

    since george bush and his followers hate the workers of america and love enron, unions are more needed than ever. and now with booming latino worker population they will again rise and kick anti-worker gop idiots out of office.