Did our local big union strikes benefit the workers?
By Forrest Whitman
Labor Unions have long claimed that they raised the standard of living for the American worker. Labor Day speeches make that point today. Economists tend to agree. They often say that strong unions have helped reduce wage inequality. Obviously the country has experienced a major inequality between the super wealthy and the ordinary worker, between the rich and the shrinking working class. Some economists think the decline in union membership since World War II is largely responsible for that huge increase in income and wealth inequality. Strikes, of course, are what give unions the clout they need to get better wages and try to reduce the inequality. The history of worker strikes is basic history to Colorado and our part of the world especially.
The strikes of early Central City
Union workers in the U.S. have long averaged 10 to 30% higher wages than non-union workers. That figure is true today. Most corporations fought just as hard in the 19th century as they do today to keep unions out of their industries. That led to some big strikes here in Colorado, strikes that affected Gilpin County directly. Strikes by miner and railroad workers were headline news in this very paper for a hundred years.
In 1863 and 1864 there were mass meetings of miners in Central City and a somewhat disorganized
ad hoc union was formed. The mine workers grievances were fairly clear. Miners hated being paid in Greenbacks because the value of that currency was subject to quick fluctuation. They hated being paid on Monday because that added at least a day to their ability to bank or pay back loans. Monday paydays also meant lean weekend celebrations. The miners demanded a ten hour day with nine hours at night. Hours at that point could vary up to nearly a full day underground. Wages were, of course, a main bone of contention. Some men were able to earn $4 a day, but far more earned $2.50. The miners wanted a set wage: laborers $3 a day, blasters $4, bucket fillers, strikers, and bucket dumpers $3. The predecessor of this newspaper tended to find middle ground about the strikes. The Register opined that the miners had every right to strike, but the mine owners had every right to close up a mine for a time and then look for non-striking workers. Actually a big strike had minor effect. A few striking workers were fired, but mostly they went back to work in a few days. Wages were not much raised, though working hours did diminish at most mines. The strike leaders declared that they’d won at least a partial victory.
Railroad strikes slowed the movement of mining machinery and worker mobility. The 1872 strike shut down some of Colorado for a week. Sometimes mining commerce was slowed to a complete halt. Often the strike would have little or nothing to do with local conditions, but still have an effect here. A good example is the famous Pullman strike. State and Pinkerton police were called in to quell that strike and several workers died on the picket line. Sympathy strikes moved through the railroad world and “wildcat” strikes threatened the western economy. That strike led to the proclamation of the first Labor Day, and that strike did raise the general wage level on the rails. Above all, those early strikes brought home the idea that ordinary laborers had the right to a decent wage and a decent life.
No workers are killed on the union picket line these days. My one personal experience was on a Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen picket line in response to a railroad engineer’s strike. It was an eerie feeling to look out over a vast rail yard and see no engine moving, no brakeman’s lantern bobbing along. There was nothing but a few strikers with signs and a few cops huddled in their cars to keep warm. We took turns going for coffee and donuts. The cops were not as mobile, so we got them coffee and pastries too (they paid in advance). It just wasn’t very dramatic.
Strikes are gentle these days and there are some obvious reasons. For one thing U. S. support for labor unions is down generally. The most recent Gallup poll shows that 52% of Americans approve of labor unions; not a resounding level of support. On the other hand, 18 to 34 year olds were more likely to support unions. A plurality of Americans believe the idea that as we go into a world economy our wages are bound to go toward the bottom levels shared by the rest of the world. That idea has been touted by all sorts of groups called “pro-business” for at least a decade now. It’s an idea that certainly hurts labor unions.
The polling outcome is ambiguous, though. A plurality of Americans believed that labor unions mostly helped state and local governments. A majority of Americans believed that unions actually helped their companies to be more competitive (48-44 margin). Further, even though conservative groups have painted the auto workers unions as greedy, most Americans don’t buy that. The facts tend to be with the unions in the auto industry debate. The auto workers unions have made concession after concession to the auto manufacturers to try and keep their companies competitive. That’s been true for the last twenty years or so. So, the polling is ambiguous.
Did the threat of big strikes work?
Some of the statistics show that when unions have been strong, strikes happened less often and the economy was good. That was especially true during the 1970s and 1980s. Strikes were rare but the Gross National Product (GNP) was up. Also U. S. goods, even though somewhat more pricey, were strong on the world market. It would seem that during the 1990s as more and more U.S. Companies outsourced work to China and India, and somewhat to Mexico, our goods lagged on the world market. This corresponded with a slow decline in union membership.
Most economists are not ready to draw easy conclusions from all of this data. One conclusion might be that strong unions lead to better products and more capital staying in this country. Some evidence for that could be countries with high union membership like Canada (28% to our 11.4% or Germany at 20%). However, there are other factors. In those countries mentioned, top management takes a far smaller portion of the profits home with them. Still another factor is how hard it has become to hold an election to get in a union. Legally unions can no longer use the old “card check” method where 50% of the workers sign a card saying they wish to be represented by a union. Now there is a 45 to 90 day waiting period and federally supervised secret ballot elections must be held. This gives management plenty of time to lobby against the union and sometimes to fire worker organizers. Does a strike threat work? It’s not an easy question to answer.
Happy Labor Day
It may be that some of us will spare a thought for the American worker this Labor Day. We’ll mostly be enjoying a nice BBQ or a game, but the older meaning of the holiday may come through here and there. In the end it is the workers who make America work.