The New Deal is regarded as the emancipator of the American labor union movement. By giving Americans a legal right to bargain collectively through labor unions of their own choosing, the National Labor Relations Act gave unions a recognized place in society.
Under the NLRB umbrella, American labor unions in the 1930s and 1940s became greater in size and power than they ever were before or have been since.
But Stanley Aronowitz in his new book, THE DEATH AND LIFE OF AMERICAN LABOR: Toward a New Workers’ Movement (2014), said that the NLRB in the long run proved a trap.
Aronowitz said that unions agreed to restrictions on their only weapon, the strike. During the course of a contract, unions themselves were responsible for suppressing unauthorized strikes.
Employers became adept at using the NLRB to thwart union organizing. In the interim between a petition for a union election and the election itself, they could weed out the union supporters (although this was technically illegal) and threaten and propagandize the employees.
Labor leaders gave up the goal of transforming society in return for place at the table where decisions about the U.S. economy were made. But they didn’t even get a place at the table.
Over the years, new laws weakened union rights and imposed new restrictions. Union leaders became less and less able or willing to use their basic weapon—the strike. Union membership is below 11 percent of the American work force, the lowest level since before the New Deal.
Aronowitz, a professor at City University of New York and a former factory worker and union organizer himself, wrote that if the labor movement is to survive, workers and labor leaders must break out of old ways of thinking.
They need to engage in direct action, outside the NLRB framework, as has was done in the recent Walmart and fast-food walkouts.
Aronowitz noted that these actions were taken without union recognition or expectation of a contract, but were effective nonetheless in forcing management to respond to workers’ demands.
Unions should not agree to contracts with no-strike provisions, he wrote. Or, if they do, only as a last resort and for a limited time.
I always thought that the Walmart and fast-food workers, who are continually at the brink of destitution, showed great courage by defying their employers like that. I wouldn’t have thought it possible if it hadn’t happened. Maybe in this case freedom really is just another word for nothing left to use.