Once upon a time, in the back of almost every smoke filled union hall, a portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt would usually be found hanging on the wall beside one of John F. Kennedy, and whoever their own national union president was. Roosevelt was revered by labor largely for his passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933. While the Act itself was later found to be unconstitutional, a portion of that law (section 7), would be expanded, transformed and passed as the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Also known as the Wagner Act, the NLRA established that...
Sec. 7. [§ 157.] Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.
Similarly, in 1962, John F. Kennedy would sign Executive Order 10988, formally recognizing collective bargaining rights of federal employees.
At passing glance, it appears as though these men, these laws, and other similar legislative efforts, made the labor movement possible. Some even live under the notion that prior to 1935, there was no labor movement at all and that Roosevelt had eagerly made it all possible. And while I have no desire to detract from the greatness of Roosevelt or Kennedy, a closer look reveals an entirely different narrative.
For example, in 1932, when FDR rammed through the National Industrial Recovery Act, he was not thinking of how he could most benefit Labor. Rather, he was succumbing to tremendous pressure and attempting to rescue capitalism from its own greedy self.
In 1932, the Ford Hunger March, attended by thousands of laid off Ford employees under the banner of the UAW and the Unemployed Councils, would result in Ford goons and local police shooting into the crowd and killing or wounding more than 50 peaceful protestors who were demanding some form of unemployment from Ford and coal for the winter, among other things.
In Kentucky, striking coal miners (where massive unemployment led to constant depression in wages by employers) began to part ways with the United Mine Workers and affiliate with the American Communist Party's National Miner's Union. The Communists, dismayed by the conservative nature of many other labor unions, had made the move recently to forming unions of their own to capitalize upon the suffering and far more readily radicalized workforce.
But perhaps most apparent to Roosevelt, trumping (no pun intended) even the violent wars raging on between labor and capital, unemployment, and the rise of communism in America's heartlands, must have been the Bonus Army.
In 1924, the World War Adjusted Compensation Act had awarded bonus certificates to WWI veterans. The certificates were supposed to have been payable in 1945, but with massive unemployment among veterans, tens of thousands of veterans marched upon Washington in the summers of 1932 and 1933 to demand jobs and payment, and camped within sight of the White House, threatening to seize power if their demands were not met.
The point of all of this is that when Roosevelt and Congress passed the right to organize into law, it came as a result of massive unrest and direct action. The Bonus Army and other civil disobedient movements by the jobless led to the enactment of works programs and unemployment insurance.
Similarly, in the federal sector, black workers, invigorated from the recent victories of the civil rights movement, launched the postal strike of 1970. That, and similar movements, compelled Congress to introduce the Rhodes-Johnson Union Recognition Bill. This bill, if enacted into law, could have ultimately led to a closed, union shop environment in the entire federal sector. It was only to prevent passage of that piece of legislation, that Kennedy hurriedly passed Executive Order 10988.
In Labor's historical contest between the chicken and the egg, the law has ALWAYS been secondary to the movement. If the federal worker had no legal right to union affiliation, then how did federal workers have unions going back as far as the 1800's? And if private sector employees had no legal right to organize prior to 1935, then how did so many workers form unions and agitate for fewer hours and improved conditions in America since even before our nation was an actual nation?
The answer is, of course, that no major gain has ever historically been won strictly by our success within the confines of the legal or political systems. By their very nature, these systems are designed solely for the protection of capital and the status quo and even our supposed political heroes were less motivated by votes and campaign contributions from labor than they were by a sense of dread of the peasants threatening to storm the castle, or gain too much.
Somewhere along the line, most of organized labor has forgotten its roots. We have funneled all of our energies into a political process that is designed to protect the enemies of Labor. We have laid down our progressive, radical, direct action arms that won us our victories, and resigned ourselves to whatever fate that contract and labor law bestows upon us.
But historically, labor was prior to, and independent of, the laws of the land. And while we must continue to work to lobby and vote, it is more important now than ever to recognize that these are not our only, nor our most effective tools and weapons.
A new world order is about to be unleashed upon all of labor by republicans salivating from the opportunity to finish us off and count coup on our bloodied collective corpse. Laws that are meant to destroy us must serve as a catalyst to move us to more direct action. If we continue to rely solely upon the political process, then we will be picked off, one worker and one union at a time until nothing remains, save the ashes.
In 1981, when Reagan broke the PATCO strike and fired all of the air traffic controllers, the rest of labor had an opportunity to rally. They opted instead to protect their own individual interests and looked to the next election cycle for salvation. In Wisconsin, when 100,000 workers held the capital complex, labor leaders came and told their respective members to go home and vote. The recall election failed, and unionized public sector employees were left to fend for themselves.
Organized labor must begin to look beyond their own immediate selfish interests. When the law of the land threatens to violate the rights of any group or individual, we must ban together like never before and say if their contract is no good, then neither is ours (and nor are our no strike clauses). If their rights are not protected, then neither are mine. If they have no justice, then neither do I. In the oft revered words of Martin Niemöller:
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."
We must begin yesterday to train union members throughout the land how to be activists, not lobbyists. Our ability to fight each attack with direct, grassroots action using more traditional non-violent tactics, and civil disobedience could actually lead to the coming onslaught marking the beginning of the revitalization of the entire movement.
I have heard more than one labor leader in recent days talking about total republican control being the end of the world. That is, of course, ridiculous. Labor has weathered much worse storms in much smaller ships. But certainly, as appointments and legislation begin to flow out of Washington, and old questions are revisited by a new Supreme Court, it will most assuredly be the end of the world as we have known it.
But if the leadership of organized labor recognizes the threats as well as the opportunities, begin to train our rank-and-file how to fight, and have structural contingency plans in place for the worst case legal scenarios, labor might come out of this leaner, meaner, revitalized, and provide the working class in this country with something genuinely worthy of truly believing in again.