Where Are America’s Unions?
Where Are America’s Unions?
Once upon a time, America’s labor unions were the stalwart defenders of the nation’s working and middle classes, fighting tirelessly for higher wages, improved working conditions, and, in general, a better deal from employers.
While some libertarian theorists who worship an unvarnished and unrestrained free market have always condemned unions, sensible analysts of American history would agree that they have played an important and usually positive role in strengthening the standard of living of Americans who work with their hands. Obviously, there have also been enormous abuses on the part of Big Labor and the labor bosses, from rampant corruption in the Teamsters Union to ridiculously excessive wage demands by the UAW which helped make the American automobile industry less competitive with our foreign trade partners, like Japan and Germany.
When we think of the late 19th-century and early 20th-century labor leaders like Samuel Gompers and John L. Lewis, we also think of patriotic Americans who loved their country and its people. These men were not socialists but were simply fighting to ensure that the workers got their fair share of the economic pie. Obviously, capitalism has historically had its rough edges and working conditions and wages were often unacceptable from the standpoint of basic human dignity. No one would seriously argue for child labor today or argue against safety standards in coal mines or steel mills. Nor would many object to the right of workers to strike unless such a strike violates existing laws or poses a threat to public safety ( i.e. police strikes ).
Even more contemporary labor barons like the AFL-CIO’s longtime, cigar-chomping boss George Meany could hardly be called radicals. To the contrary, Meany – who led the union from the 1950s until 1980 – was strongly anti-Communist, a supporter of the Vietnam War, and opposed to Jimmy Carter’s recognition of Communist China in 1978. Meany stood for American workers which meant opposing the importation of cheap foreign labor or, worse, slave labor from the Communist bloc. The Teamsters Union also had a strong history of supporting Republicans, including Richard Nixon in 1972 and it was the so-called unionized flag-waving “hard hats” who mobilized to support Nixon’s Vietnam policies and oppose the radical left-wing anti-war demonstrators.
Of course, for every George Meany and Frank Fitzsimmons, there were also the more left-wing union bosses like Harry Bridges of the Longshoremen’s Union who was an identified Communist and William Winpisinger of the Machinists’ Union. There was also Cesar Chavez of the United Farmworker’s Union who – while a disciple of Saul Alinsky and the cause of social revolution — tempered his left-wing leanings with virulent hostility to illegal immigration which he rightly saw as a method employers used to hold down the wages of native farmworkers.
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