Opinion/Harold: The renaissance of unions - a logic whose time has come again

A recent Gallup poll showed that the great majority of Americans (71%) now approve of labor unions, the highest percentage since the 1960s. We are reading stories of union inroads in Amazon, Starbucks, and now railroads.

Although only 10% of U.S. workers are in a union — from a high of 33.2% in 1955 — it's good to hear of this renaissance of the logic of unions.

In the 1940s and 50s that logic had become as unassailable as democracy itself. I assume it was part of my public school's curriculum that the passage in mid-Depression of the Wagner Act legalizing unions, that unions represented self-evident progress. I don't know where else a kid would have learned it.

Brent Harold
Brent Harold

The progressive logic behind unions was taught in relation to the anti-union, owner-oriented logic that had prevailed until then: it's my property and when you're on it working for me, for which you are paid, and should be grateful, you'll do what I want you to, I set the rules.

That way of thinking had been linked with what had been seen by many as the great progress wrought by capitalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as railroads spanning the continent. Most Americans — guessing here — identified with these acts of fulfilling our so-called Manifest Destiny, important progress for our country, even if we called their capitalist-perpetrators robber barons. If workers were abused, many killed, in the process, so be it. (Omelettes require breaking eggs.)

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That logic was slowly supplanted by the idea that owners will never on their own see things from their workers' point of view. You may own the building and other means of production, but we workers are the indispensable means of production — we actually make the stuff you sell at a profit — so in that sense, it's our business, too. Which you will find out when we withhold our labor in a strike.

As for the owner-serving notion of the owner as a benevolent parent to workers, it was not seen as in the owners' interests to keep workers safe, which was illustrated by the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, in which 146 workers died.

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The logic of unions — such things as collective bargaining and worker rights — was a big conceptual change, and one not of course embraced by a lot of the owner class. But there were more workers than owners and managers.

It was a story we were taught, not as a political victory of the left but of genuine progress for humans, as self-evidently logical and humane as that slavery was bad or that women are fully human and should have all the rights of full humanity.

But the triumph of that logic was short-lived and began to decline almost as soon as it became installed as law. Reasons often cited for the decline: union corruption such as that depicted in the 1954 movie “On the Waterfront,” Reagan's union-busting, perhaps genuine improvements in workplace safety built into law as a result of the labor movement and OSHA.

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It seems that workers themselves also lost a grip on the hard-won logic from struggles earlier in the century, of worker empowerment, of democracy of the workplace. This is despite what many economists have seen as the clear connection between the decline of that logic and the rise, over the past five decades, in economic inequality as reflected in the ratio of a CEO's salary to that of the average worker.

With the rise of Amazon, Starbucks and Trader Joe's, the idea of the benevolent owner has been a likely factor in the erosion of union logic, the idea of worker happiness going hand-in-hand with company profits.

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I've had that thought myself as a shopper at the local Trader Joe's. One of the enjoyable things about shopping there is the friendliness of the workers, including their camaraderie with one another. Why would such a happy family need a divisive union? Can it be that the old logic has prevailed, that companies are the best judge of what's good for workers, instead of natural adversaries?

To which it can only be asked: Why did the workers in the Hadley, Massachusetts, Trader Joe's — the only one so far to unionize — want to strike? And why does the company resist the participation of workers in the form of unions?

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So even as we wait to see if the logic of democratic institutions in general survives, it is heartening to see the re-emergence of the logic of unions and democracy in the workplace.

It feels like welcoming back an old friend, the logic of two plus two equalling four after a long period of it equalling five.

Brent Harold, a Cape Cod Times columnist and former English professor, lives in Wellfleet. Email him at kinnacum@gmail.com.

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This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Unions, and the logic behind them, is having a renaissance