FLIA Dialogue: Our labor unions are dead? — Frances Fox Piven interviewed by FLIA
They are not dead, no. But they are “enormously weakened by 35 years’ of employer attacks,” said Frances Fox-Piven. And the political environment for American workers is “terrible.”
The Foundation for Law and International Affairs (FLIA) recently interviewed Frances Fox Piven, as an episode of FLIA Dialogue, focusing on the current status and the historical changes of American labor unions.
Early in the history, labor was brutally suppressed. Corporations even hired a private police force – The Pinkertons – who were once even once bigger than the U.S. Army. “With clubs and guns,” under the instructions from the corporations, this private police force was “regularly brought in by employers to bust union efforts.”
In the 1930’s, new legislation was passed and unions could effectively organize disruptive mass strikes, sit-downs, and other stoppages to their employers’ production, or, more extremely, shut down the entire industry. Therefore, the union leaders were able to sign contracts with corporations that raised their standing. And the unions could guarantee smooth production for the period of time the contract indicated. There was a degree of labor peace in the American industry back then.
Nowadays, however, labor unions are in a very disadvantaged position. Part of the exogenous reason is that industries and mines, occupy relatively a small portion of American economy, meaning that the struggles of these workers would have limited impact even if there were strong unions. Plus, in other big sectors, such as fast-food and retail, it is difficult for workers to unionize. Without effective organization, the struggles and negotiations against giant companies are simply not realistic for the workers, regardless of the severe attacks from the employers’ side.
Moreover, the emphasis of labor rights activities has changed. From the unionized and subversive industrial strikes and trying to come to a contract with individual companies, it is now more about winning legislation that raises the labor treatment, such as higher minimum wages.
Let’s take a look at the corporations. In the 1930’s, corporations thought they were “better off” with the presence of the unions, because long-term agreements could be reached, which ensured that productivity would remain high for a period of time. And after the World War II, facing lack of competition from the other parts of the world, the profit was seemingly limitless for the corporations. Naturally, they were willing to pay higher wages in exchange for higher productivity.
However, after about 25 years of an ideal business environment, the foreign competitions surged, mainly from Europe and Japan. And the American companies had to maintain their profits by cutting costs. After a very short period of time, they discovered that they could do so without the harassment from labor unions and by working with lawyers to change policies. It also contributed to the strategy-shift of the workers – the main battlefields became legislatures and courts.