The United States union movement is quite unlike that of Australia. In fact, their part in American politics is unique. The Democrat Donkey is the recipient of most of the union movement’s considerable muscle, but at times influential unions, such as the Teamsters (truck drivers), have allied themselves with the Republican Elephant.
The Democratic Party is not the equivalent of the Australian Labor Party. American political parties are alliances. The AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organisations) is the equivalent of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). The AFL-CIO is one of the most influential members of the Democrat coalition. It is in there fighting for a deal in the boiler room of American politics. It has to get in there with other interest groups and do deals.
The “New Deal coalition” kept the Democrats in power through much of the 1930s until the Cold War era. This coalition consisted of organised labour, blue-collar workers, farmers, the urban poor, minorities, intellectuals and Dixicrats (Southern Democrats). But it was fatally wounded when the Republicans took over the South. The “Reagan Democrats” were blue-collar workers who backed the Republicans. Much the same is happening with Republican candidate Donald Trump.
The unions are powerful, not only because they have money but because they can get people on the ground and get the vote out. This is important in the United States, where voting is not compulsory. Thus, while the AFL-CIO and individual local unions are powerful, the Democratic Party is not the political wing of the AFL-CIO and the industrial movement. At the peak of the U.S.’s industrial strength in the 1950s and ‘60s, when Detroit ruled the world’s motor industry, it was thought that the charismatic Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers union, might launch an American labour party, but it never came about.
To understand American labour, one must start at the beginning. The first American unionists were craft workers. The union movement first took hold in New York, led by English-born Samuel Gompers (1850–1924). The unionists were skilled craftsmen. Organised labour sought better pay and better working conditions.
Gompers was influential in forming the American Federation of Labor (AFL). He didn’t trust politicians. Usually he supported the Democrats but sometimes he supported the Republicans. He believed that a contract with a corporation was worth more than legislation, which could be overturned by the next politician coming down the road. Socialists weren’t popular with Gompers, and he supported the entry of the United States into World War I. Minimising conflict between rival unions within the AFL was one of his key aims. Similarly, Gompers is not popular with socialists, who disparage the U.S. labour-relations system as “Gomperism”.
As a rule, unions are divided into “locals” and “international unions”. The locals will do a deal with a corporation and get a contract for that site. The international unions are organisations such as the United Autoworkers Union. So, while Australia has in the region of 20 major unions, the United States has tens of thousands of unions.
The Machinists international union, for example, provides an overarching presence for the locals. Industrial action is common when contracts are up for renewal. Industrial action can be intense, but it is usually predictable. Wildcat strikes are not uncommon, especially in the coalmining industry.
Most unions are not ideological organisations. They aim at getting the best contract they can for their members. If it seems that an existing contract will bankrupt a company, they may negotiate “givebacks”; that is, reductions in pay and conditions. In industries that are under pressure from imports, for example steel, no-strike agreements are not unknown.
American labour’s greatest challenges are technology, economic policy and industrial circumstances. Information technology, for example, does not invite organised labour. Organising workers in the service industry, where wages are $US7 to $US8 an hour – the legal minimum in most states – is often not financially worthwhile for organised labour.
The United States west coast longshoremen’s union (waterside workers’ union) was organised by Harry Bridges, an Australian firebrand. Bridges was for many years one of the most powerful unionists in America.
Because of its method of operation, that is, representing skilled workers, the AFL either could not – or would not – organise workers in industries based on mass production. Craft workers were vital elements in American industry and could use their power as keys to the production process to drive a hard bargain with management. The “local” would bring together all skilled workers who worked in craft to negotiate a contract.
Industrial workers however, were, by their nature, cogs who could be a replaced at will. They were unskilled or semiskilled. The industries that boomed in the early 20th century, such as the auto industry, electrical and appliance industry and other industries hired unskilled and semiskilled labour. They did not fit easily into the AFL, with its membership of highly skilled craftsmen.
This is not to say that craft workers were not involved in the great organising campaigns of the 1920s and ‘30s. Walter Reuther, for example, was a highly skilled tool and die maker at the Ford River Rouge plant, equivalent, in today’s terms, to Apple. Reuther was savagely bashed by Ford goons at the Battle of the Overpass at the River Rouge plant on May 26, 1937. Henry Ford, famously, paid his workers $US5 for an eight-hour day, at least in part so they could buy his cars, but he hated unions.
Walter Reuter, however, boosted by the moral authority he gained as a victim of the Ford security men, did organise the River Rouge plant, said at the time to be the greatest collection of workers and machinery in the world.
These industrial workers did not sit comfortably within the AFL. The eventual outcome was the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO) to represent workers in “new” industries. The CIO never matched the AFL in headcount and conflict between the two organisations was often bitter. But in 1955 the two peak union bodies put their differences aside and amalgamated to form the AFL-CIO. AFL-CIO membership peaked in 1979 at almost 20 million.
The union movement had to overcome Republican-inspired federal legislation in 1946 that allowed states to act against unions by passing “right to work” laws that effectively outlawed organising, especially in Southern states. The Taft Hartley Act (1947) also restricted union power and prerogatives.
(In 2013, right-to-work laws came into effect in Michigan, America’s industrial heartland, as well as in over 20 other states. This means that unions cannot compulsorily collect membership dues, even in union shops, or enforce closed shops.)
Although collective bargaining in America began with Gompers in the 19th century, unionism is not something that readily springs to mind in viewing the world’s most powerful nation. Unionism isn’t something that seems to fit naturally with the rampant “get rich quick” ethic of American capitalism. Even a floundering brush salesman like Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman can say “a salesman’s got to dream. It comes with the territory.” He wants to be someone.
“Solidarity” does not come naturally to Americans. It is a country built on individual exertion. That is not to say that American unions are a “tame cat”. The U.S. has the worst record of labour-dispute deaths in the Western world. Nor that American unionists are without ideals. AFL-CIO-affiliated unions were instrumental in helping the Poles, and Lech Walesa’s Solidarnosc and other worker organisations, defeat communism in Eastern Europe. Union aid was very practical – one photocopier is more useful than a tonne of books when you are fighting communism.
The one man who represented American unions at their best was the above-mentioned Walter Reuther, head of the United Auto Workers union. Reuther could see that America was a wealthy country but that the wealth wasn’t distributed fairly. The way to make workers richer was to give them a bigger slice of the cake through industrial organisation. Reuther dragged millions of industrial workers into the middle class by organising them into labour unions.
George Romney, head of the Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (and father of Republican Party presidential candidate Mitt Romney), said that Walter Reuther was “the most dangerous man in Detroit” because he was “most skillful in bringing about the revolution without seeming to disturb the existing forms of society”. (Nelson Lichtenstein. The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor. Basic Books, New York, 1995).
Reuther a was second-generation American of German descent. He was a highly skilled craftsman. Motor City – Detroit – was a high-tech hub. When the Depression struck in 1929, output in Detroit fell by two-thirds and employment halved. Reuther and his brother left for Russia, to help establish the giant Gorky Motor Works, which employed 32,000 workers, including 200 foreigners, of whom 100 were American. The brothers’ expertise was valued there.
The Reuther brothers were away from America for almost three years but there is no evidence that either was a communist. Walter went on to become to the most powerful American unionist of the mid-20th century.
Organised labour in the U.S. and Australia has followed similar paths. As a proportion of the workforce, union membership in the U.S. fell from 20 per cent in 1983 to 11 per cent in 2013. Unionisation in Australia fell from around 60 per cent in the 1960s to an all-time low of 15 per cent in 2015 (Australian Bureau of Statistics).
As major industrial plants close and smaller businesses open up, it is harder to organise workers. Below a certain level, it is not worth organising workplaces. Organising knowledge-based businesses is also more complicated, as results and rewards are less tangible.
In both the U.S. and Australia, public-sector unions are holding on to members. The U.S. public-sector union is the largest union affiliated with the AFL-CIO. The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) is one of the largest unions in Australia. Public-sector union membership stands at 42 per cent; private sector at 12 per cent.
Jeffry Babb was formerly a member of the Water Supply Workers Union, the Australian Workers Union, the Federated Clerks Union, and the Australian Education Union.