It’s with a somewhat heavy heart that we’ll be enjoying the camaraderie of our brother and sister union members at Milwaukee’s Laborfest on the lakefront this year.
As has been the case in recent Labor Day celebrations, it’s expected the marchers in the Annual Labor Day parade will be fewer in number and the crowd coming to Summerfest grounds afterwards may be somewhat reduced. That will be the disheartening reality of the current state of unionism in this once strong Union town.
The will be some hopeful signs, however, in the enthusiasm shown by the brothers and sisters in the 2015 marches. What has been remarkable during this downturn in union membership is the increase in the determination and solidarity among those union members who still are active. They will be joined by many who are not union members, including a large number of retired unionists or current workers in nonunion plants who once labored in union shops that closed up in the flight of industry from our city during the last 35 years.
The year 2015 marks the 80th Anniversary of the Wagner Act (or National Labor Relations Act – NLRA) that brought about the right for workers to organize and bargain collectively; it also required employers to bargain in “good faith” with the union. It was an historic piece of legislation, often called “Labor’s Magna Charta,” and it brought about a sudden growth in unionism. In Milwaukee, every major manufacturer – except one – became union shops. Similar levels of union growth were duplicated in the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest. Union strength grew, and few politicians could get elected without labor’s support.
Through the years, new anti-labor laws like the Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin acts of 1947 and 1959 respectively diluted the Wagner Act. Courts chipped away at the Wagner Act, as well, weakening enforcement by the NLRB, making it almost impossible to organize any employer who was determined to remain non-union. Efforts to bring about positive labor law reform got lip-service from friendly politicians, but little else.
Add into the mix the growing tendency of employers to pull out all stops to block unionism and to challenge the existence of what unions remained. Furthermore, enemy politicians helped to fuel arguments that put unions into an unfavorable light. Witness the lies heaped upon unionists in Wisconsin as they fought to resist Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union Act 10 in 2011: Walker portrayed teachers as overpaid and underworked and wrongly claimed the more than 100,000 demonstrators who filled Madison streets during the frigid winter of 2011 were “thugs and outsiders.”
As we watched the once-strong labor movement grow more powerless, we found it easy to become disheartened.
Yet, there are signs that there’s a light shining in this dark tunnel of working class despair. The increased determination in the few unionists remaining may show that there are seeds for growth. The efforts to organize fast food places and retail establishments show promise, even with slow progress. There’s an openness among labor leaders – and just ordinary dues-payers – to exploring new ways to do things.
Labor, too, is finding new allies, such as the fledgling Wisconsin Jobs Now campaign that embraces dramatic ways to organize law-wage workers. Success with such efforts, however, may require labor unions to search out new forms of structure, including finding the ways and means to provide representation for workers even where there is no formal labor contract.
President Obama has failed labor several times during his tenure; consider his lukewarm response to labor law reform and his decision not to show up to support Wisconsin workers in the 2011 uprising. Yet, he’s been responsive in other ways that fail to get much press; his appointment of new members of the National Labor Relations Board has already paid off with a recent ruling that may take away the right of employers to use temporary employment services to avoid unionization.
Also, he has spoken out for increasing the minimum wage, but with Republican control of Congress, that doesn’t seem to be gaining much steam.
The reality is that workers can’t depend upon the politicians to bring about the changes that are needed to bring about living wages and safe and decent workplaces. Working people must get together to organize to “force” change. Even the Wagner Act wouldn’t have passed in 1935 without the many strikes and job actions that occurred in the early 1930s.
As we join our friends and allies on Monday at Laborfest, we hope our heavy hearts will be lifted as we see that there’s a new spirit of working class collectivism rising. Let’s hope that’s the case. Ken Germanson, Sept. 5, 2015