I think workers will always need to organize to protect their own interests. Labor unions are a structure that exists for that purpose, but it is nothing more than a structure, just as a corporation, a government agency, a charitable organization or a church is a structure. The people within the structure may or may not be faithful to carrying out the organization’s purpose.
Labor unions are much more democratic and much less corrupt than other institutions in American society, partly because corruption is much less tolerated in unions than in other institutions. Corrupt labor leaders go to prison; corrupt bankers retire to enjoy their ill-gotten gains. Under law, the government can, and has, appointed trustees to take over corrupt labor unions and clean house. Nothing of the sort exists for labor unions.
I think there always will be a need for labor unions, but future labor unions may not be like those of the present day. In the 1930s, the American Federation of Labor, consisting predominantly of skilled workers organized by craft, did not respond to the discontent of workers in great industries. Workers acted on their own, and the CIO (Committee for Industrial Organization, later Congress of Industrial Organizations) was formed in response.
The Wagner Act of 1935 recognized the right of unions to exist and to make contracts through collective bargaining, but imposed on them the obligation not to strike for the duration of the contract. Further restrictions on labor unions were imposed by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959.
The one-day work stoppages by Wal-Mart and fast-food workers remind me of what I read about the history of the 1930s, with workers taking their fate into their own hands and the recognized labor unions rushing to keep up with them. These actions could represent a new direction for American workers. I hope they do.
Click on Fortress Unionism for an account by Rich Yeselson in Democracy Journal of how the Taft-Hartley Law crippled the U.S. union movement.
Click on Does Organized Labor Have a Future? for a pessimistic view by labor historian Melvyn Dubofsky in Logos.
Click on Can the fast-food strikes revive American labor unions? for a hopeful view by Ned Resnikoff for MSNBC.
The “American dream” was not so much that everybody could aspire to become a millionaire or billionaire as that every hard-working person could better themselves and share in the nation’s material progress. This was true of my generation, but it is not true of the generation of my niece and nephew, and it does not appear as if it is going to be true for their children.
I do not think the United States can continue on the trajectory of the past 30 years. I sense a deep underlying anger which someday will explode. But whether Americans will follow the direction of the labor movement, the Occupy movement, the Tea Party movement or some movement as yet unknown, I am not brave enough to guess.