The Rebirth Of Unions?

I grew up in Anderson, Indiana, when that town’s Guide Lamp and Delco Remy plants employed large numbers of workers, and unions were strong. My father was a small businessman–he owned and operated an auto parts store–and I can still remember conversations between my parents that focused on the excesses of those unions. Strikes, of course, hurt my father’s business, but it went beyond that; union members sometimes engaged in thuggish behaviors of which my parents strongly disapproved. 

Those snatches of conversations were really all I knew growing up about labor unions, or the issues that came under the heading of “labor-management disputes.” Then, earlier in our married life, my architect husband often railed against construction unions that brought projects to a halt until their complaints were addressed, pointing out how those stoppages–often over “jurisdictional disputes” that seemed petty–drove up costs.

Let’s just say I wasn’t a fan of unions. I missed the point.

What I now understand is that wildly uneven distribution of power is never a good thing. Both management and unions have been guilty of bad behaviors, and those behaviors ought to be punished when they occur, but when management holds all the cards, the economy suffers and inequities and social discord increase.

The success of the business community in crushing unions has been a substantial contributor to the current, enormous gap between the rich and the rest, and to the resentments that feed America’s culture wars. So–despite my earlier bias–I see the signs of union resurgence as unequivocally good news. 

The Guardian recently reported on the elevation of Liz Schuler to the presidency of the AFL-CIO. The article noted that

Public approval for organized labor in the US has climbed to its highest level in more than 50 years, as many young workers are flocking into unions and millions of overstressed, underpaid frontline workers are impatient to improve their lot.

There are obvious barriers to a rebirth of vigorous unionism. At this point in time, only 6% of private-sector workers are in unions, and as the article points out, “the Republican party is intent on weakening unions, and most US corporations – led by behemoths Amazon and Walmart – are fiercely opposed to unionization.” Add in the prevalence of gig workers, tech workers and immigrant labor, and the employment landscape is considerably different than the largely factory-based labor force of my youth.

That said, we need only turn on the evening news to hear reports of efforts to unionize behemoths like Amazon and Starbucks, and more recently, striking workers in a number of sectors. The reluctance of workers to return to low-wage and often dangerous jobs in the wake of the pandemic and the proliferation of “help wanted” signs points to workers’ new ability to bargain for change. How all of this will play out is anyone’s guess.

The new aggressiveness of workers is just one piece of the social upheavals Americans are currently experiencing. Those upheavals remind me of another facet of my earlier life: the period we now refer to as “The Sixties.” Many of us in my (advanced) age cohort vividly remember the Sixties as a time of extreme social discord, a time the nation seemed to be coming apart. But that turmoil generated enormous–and largely positive–social change: it gave impetus to the civil rights movement, expanded healthcare for the elderly and the poor, reinvigorated the women’s movement and the gay-rights movement…The Sixties shook America out of the complacency and conformity of the Fifties. 

Regular readers of this blog may be shocked by this evidence of actual positivity, but as troubling and fraught as the current landscape is, I am convinced that we are going through a time of reordering and reconsideration not unlike what Americans experienced in the Sixties–hopefully, without the degree of violence that erupted during that time.

 If we can protect our basic democratic system–which, in my view, absolutely requires passage of the Voting Rights Act–we can emerge with a new understanding of civic equality and economic justice, a new recognition of the proper balance between “I” and “we,” and a renewed appreciation of the significant degree to which “my” prospects require a healthy and robust “us.”

So I’m cheering on the unions, rooting for the Biden Administration, appreciating the millions of Americans who’ve protected their neighbors by getting their vaccines, applauding the educators and historians who are correcting propaganda in the face of racist blowback– and reminding myself (sometimes daily) that a degree of upheaval–disquieting as it is–really can lead to a better tomorrow. 


  1. I think it important to remember when the Republicans started actively destroying the US Labor Movement. A headline relating to the issue states:
    “Reagan fires 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, Aug. 5, 1981”

    It was GAME ON – The message to business was that it was not OPEN SEASON on the labor movement. They decimated the workers. It was and is brutal. The Republicans have always been opposed to things that help workers — since FDR era to the present time. Pro business – Anti worker. Yet millions of workers vote against themselves just because the R’s stir up and encourage their hate of the other. Sad and silly.

  2. Most Americans love their independence so much, that unionism comes in a distant second. BUT, when the greedy capitalists keep squeezing workers toward slavery, what other recourse do they have but to organize. Capitalism’s ideal labor environment is slavery with NO monetary cost whatsoever. OF COURSE workers have to organize in order to at least attempt to lead a dignified life.

    I was the school representative for our teachers union in Colorado Springs, a distinctly “conservative” town. My fellow educators HATED having to organize. But if they hadn’t, they still be making barely enough to feed themselves and their families.

    In fact, most of our single-parent teachers’ children were on free breakfast and lunch programs because THEY QUALIFIED AS POOR. Yes, college-educated, dedicated public servants were relegated to third-class status. In Texas, of course, teachers unions were BANNED! The law said that if teachers conducted strikes, they would be summarily fired with no legal recourse. Is it redundant to say that Texas teachers are among the lowest-paid of any state?

    Yes, Pat, the Reagan/Regan administration attacked unions because of their embrace of Milton Friedman’s draconian “Supply-side Economics” theory. Of course they did. They became the Republican’s Republicans. Unions were anathema to them… and still are. Why? Because the rich capitalist donors don’t want to pay those people who make them rich. It’s stupid, of course, but there we are.

    In yet another irony, Reagan was once a union activist for screen actors. You can’t make this up.

  3. My first thoughts when the strikes began was a rebirth of much needed, well organized unions. I’m from a working class family; a number of them were or are union members. Whenever anything is created to help workers and owners alike; someone will always find a way to f#*k it up and make money for themselves. There will inevitably be the criminal element seeking a way in to take control. Currently the corporations are in control and union workers in too many cases are unprotected by their unions and membership is required to keep their jobs.

    The empty shelves in stores due to the lack of production workers and delivery drivers is beginning to take a toll on all of us. We have seen the huge areas of goods waiting to be loaded and delivered to all businesses but people seem to be complaining about the businesses with the empty shelves being to blame. After the almost 2 years of pandemic with forced closures of businesses, I’m wondering if Americans really want to return to work.

    Is it possible to use this time of loss of unions to start over using the original foundation of unions to protect workers and deal fairly with business owners.

  4. Both of my parents were employed by manufacturers that had unions as I grew up in the 60s. I saw my grandfather lose his pension when Studebaker went bankrupt and had to live on Social Security. Every three years, my Mother suffered panic attacks in the mid-70s when her union went on strike for 3 weeks after my Dad died of heart failure because she wouldn’t get paid. She still had 3 teens in high school to support. Thankfully, the union provided what was called “major medical” insurance that covered the hospital bills when my Dad was in the CCU for 32 days and when my oldest brother had hepatitis for a 52 day stay in the hospital. He was read his last rites 3 times. At least we didn’t lose our home and have to live in a tent city.

    Unions got too cocky and the republicans made sure they lost their power once Reagan fired all of the traffic controllers. This was about the same time I became a waitress for 2.01 an hour and Congress raised my taxes. I’m going to turn 62 this week and I checked my possible benefits if I started taking it. I could not believe that in 81, 82 and 83, I earned less than 8k a year! How did I survive?

    I think the current low employment rate right now is that this pandemic has given people a chance to get some sleep and dream of a better life. I think they finally have an opportunity to change the direction of their future with demands of more pay, better scheduling, sick pay, vacation pay and someday healthcare that won’t bankrupt them.

    But you know me, I’m just a dreamer.

  5. Unions protect all kinds of jobs. The musicians union in Indianapolis is the THIRD oldest of its kind in the USA. Stage hands also have a union which protects them when they have to rig all sorts of fantastical displays for performances. Arts are just as important to human beings as transportation of goods and transportation itself.

  6. Sheila, I grew up just down the road from Anderson in Elwood. I lived a life that was secure with optimism because of the union jobs at GM in both Anderson and Kokomo. That manufacturing corridor bounded by State Road 28 and 32 created communities where everyone felt there was and opportunity to buy a house, save money and send their kids to college. The GOP destruction of unions took that optimism away and today’s young adults and even middle agers do not have that sense of a properours future. People that have nothing to lose, will risk everything to get what they need. Strikes are in the wind and they will continue because we cannot sustain this inequality in our economy.

  7. Like most organizations, unions require the active participation of their members in order to remain both effective and honest. Sadly, too many members sat on the sidelines sniping at the “crooks” and not doing anything to right the wrong.

    Reagan, while President of the Screen Actors Guild, testified before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee about the commies in the guild. He got to go on to host the GE Theater, while his commie ex-friends got blackballed.

  8. Yes, indeed Reagan was the one who started decimating unions. I remember it quite well. And then along came NAFTA which led to unemployment for many blue collar workers. No one has yet to look at the cost of insurance premiums and how that affects jobs in the U.S. that I know of. I would love to see a commentary on that.

    In the best of all possible scenarios both labor and management work together to make a company successful. Workers are allowed to own some stock in the company. Recently I saw a CEO markedly reduced his salary so he could pay each worker $70,000/year. Kudos for him!

    Now they need to allow labor on the Board of the company. Labor should have a voice. They can come up with innovative ideas that help a company succeed. Management seems to have forgotten that workers are their greatest resource, not just their greatest expense.

    I remember in 1984 the CEO of St. Vincent’s said “NO LAY OFFS!” when other hospitals were cutting nursing jobs. I got a 1000 dollar bonus check that same year. For a long time it was a good place to work and my job was secure. But then Ascenscion took over and I was downsized in 2003 at the age of 51. My first job in nursing in 1972 paid me a whoppin 6 bucks/hour. There were 51 patients and 3 of us to take care of them. When a patient died on my watch, the supervisor gave me the “comforting” words of “Usually on midnights you can’t get to them in time.” Right. I often wish we had nursing unions here in Indiana so that the MBA’s could quit telling us what our staff/patient ratios should be. Nurse managers have to crunch financial numbers that show the MBA’s that cutting staff will actually reduce their profit margin. Ugh. Quality of care, patient safety, and the safety of nurses is not their main concern. They don’t seem to care about just doing the right thing.

    Now we have lots of people quitting jobs that don’t pay a liveable wage and looking for work that gives them greater meaning and purpose. I suspect the pandemic may, in fact, markedly change the balance between management and labor so that labor is more empowered to ensure worker safety and benefits. I hope so.

    And in the meantime, I am so happy I no longer work in our broken health care system. My nursing license expires after 10/31 this year, and I will not renew it.

  9. One of the roles of a CEO is to optimize investment in human capital. I do believe this requires the incumbent CEO to have a ‘union mentality’ long before the need of a union to empower employee activism to advocate for fair wages and benefits. My father was an active member of AFL-CIO to fight for better customer service supported by management. But unions can be subversive and it usually emanates from a disgruntled employee who becomes a union plant inside the enterprise. I always engaged the ‘worker committee’ even if the chair (the union plant) refused to show up. Members of the worker committee became disenchanted with their chair and voted him out. The union chief sent in his “hammers and anvils” to attempt intimidation and force of threat believing the vote was a conspiracy on my part. I spoke better union language than they did, and my employees saw right through them. Our employees saw no value in becoming a union. I do believe unions have their value positioned in the framework of ethical standards, engagement with management and purposed meaningfully to prosperity of the enterprise built on investment in human capital.

  10. We need more co-ops, ESOPs (employee stock ownership) and “B Corps”. There is nothing to prevent new union leaders from being corrupt from their power.

  11. It’s paradoxical but the biggest threat to capitalism today in the US is authoritarian capitalism ( When one force in society is led to extremism and tries to impose it on others through organizations like corporations, counter forces also choose to force multiply by organizing. Knowing the American appetite for freedom I would say that when everything settles down again the losers will be corporations and Republicans and the winners will be workers and Democrats.

    Trump was a bridge too far.

  12. If not properly contained and regulated, monopolies are bad for society. This goes for capital and labor. The power inherent in consolidating labor decisions regarding pay and working conditions (and all other manner of things) is intoxicating and certain to lead to corruption. Again, our G7 counterpart nations have all figured out how to strike the right balance on both sides and have active labor unions to check corporate Industrial powers.

    Public employee unions are another thing altogether. Even President Roosevelt was against them because they work to get union sympathizers into elected offices and boards and then essentially negotiate with themselves. This has not been the case in Indiana in decades because of its anti-union fervor but IS still the case in many blue states and cities. Just this morning I listened to NYT’s The Daily podcast called “The Showdown In Chicago” where the police union chief is leading an insurrectionist-style walkout because the city requires employees to register their vaccine status and agree to testing twice-weekly if unvaccinated (she initially mandated vaccines but backed down). Of all of them Police unions either have to have their power checked or they have to go.

    Robin, I cannot believe that more medical professionals have not unionized. In fact, only 1 out of 3 practicing MD’s are members of the AMA, historically one of the most powerful unions in the world, and which had a big hand in organizing the current MESS we call US health insurance and delivery.

    The only union card I’ve carried was when I played in a rock and roll band in the sixties. My band mates and I were approached by union rep at a gig where he knew we were being paid a whopping $25 each and told us he could ensure that we got paid $50. Of course, if we chose not to join, he said, we’d never work in the area again. So we joined and paid our dues….and we kept booking gigs for $25 each and less. I was 16 years old and it was my first shakedown. But that union did a lot of good for the real pros in the area and especially the musicians of color. Oh, and our band’s name? The Daily Planet.

    So yeah, unions, but with caution.

  13. I totally agree with Sheila’s column today. I would like to see a resurgence of the unions to level the playing field. I don’t think labor has enough power in relation to capital. One good development from today’s labor shortage is that employees have a lot more power. Wages and benefits for unskilled and modestly skilled workers have increased substantially since the pandemic. Working conditions have also improved. And the $7.25 minimum wage has been obliterated by market competition. That’s a good thing.

    But while I agree with unions being stronger, I don’t care for the negative example cited by many of the readers as “union busting” – Reagan’s firing of air traffic controller. Public safety unions do not have the right to strike – they never have. Police officers and firefighters are unionized but cannot go out on strike. The reason is obvious. Air traffic controllers are also involved in public safety. Reagan was able to fire them precisely because they were federal employees involved in a public safety function. They endangered the flying public with their actions. Reagan had no choice but to fire them and I’m certainly glad he did.

  14. My father was a coal miner and was part of the organizing effort of the Welshman John Lewis’s United Mine Workers of America. During the organizing strikes the coal owners had machine gun nests in place to control the strikers, who were known as “company goons” by strikers. My father in the course of one of the strikes was rendered unconscious by being hit over the head with a “monkey wrench,” and never forgot it. I came up in a very union world and haven’t changed one iota in this power struggle between management and labor. I disagree with Paul; I think Reagan (a former union head himself) signalled the end of unionism as we know it with his air controllers firings and the destruction of the remnants of FDR’s New Deal. For my money, he was a smiling Trump.

    I have belonged to several unions myself in the course of things, notably the UAW. Yes, there has been some corruption in some unions, but there has been some corruption in their employers, too, a truism that does not get the notoriety that union corruption does. Wonder why? Who owns the media?

  15. Several points today.
    1) No worker is truly “unskilled”. The laborers are required to a standard of performance of some kind in every job. The brute strength and ability to do backbreaking work under often extraordinarily harsh conditions requires endurance and economy of motion, something many of those “unskilled” workers become very good at as a matter of survival.
    2) The controllers were striking because they were very concerned about public safety. Who else would be more qualified to identify changes to unsafe practices than those doing the actual work?
    3) Employers gave the unions a blueprint for operational strategy with deadly consequences for all concerned. Does anyone think that the Triangle Shirt Factory would have killed so many had there been a union in place? The terrible losses of life in the Bangladesh factory fires (over 200 reported apparel factory fires in 2020) are due to our demanded for cheap goods and corporations’ greed. Is it any wonder that workers are trying to organize?

  16. The demise of unions and the active campaign to diminish them has had the most deleterious effect on politics in our nation. My father helped lead labor actions against Singer Sewing Machines in Newark, New Jersey in the late 1940’s with the express purpose was not only wage growth but integrating the shop floor where, as opposed to the foundry where blacks worked, the safer and better paying jobs were available. The strength of the middle class, largely Democratic voters, was grounded in this union base of white and black workers. The loss of union jobs, the betrayal of American workers by taking manufacturing overseas and the need to identify and vilify unions as a scapegoat has led to the desertion of the Democratic Party by white working males and the dangerous shift and division we see today. As always, racism finds its target.

  17. During the Middle Ages, the black death killed so many people that it brought about the end of feudalism and the rise of craft guilds. Whatever you want to call it, I’m in favor of more power for the workers. Businesses couldn’t exist without them.

    As for the 60’s, I saw them as a time of great hope in spite of the violent reactions against change. I’m thinking of the reactions of white people – especially the KKK. And I can’t forget the image of little black children being spit upon by white adults as those children were escorted into public schools. Those brave children and their brave parents deserved medals of some kind. As it says on Fanny Lou Hamer’s gravestone, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

  18. I worked for Community Health Network for 25 years. They were not unionized, and once when there was a threat of unionization, they paid attention. In all of the time I worked there, they never laid anybody off. They had an HR department that any company would have been proud of. They had ongoing continuing education for managers on how to be better managers! They did regular reviews of salary scales and even made adjustments based on market conditions. They really did treat their employees like a valuable resource.

    Then I worked at IPL for about 12 years. All of the hourly workers were unionized. I was in IT and salaried, so we were not unionized. I don’t know how things worked in the past, but what I discovered is that HR only existed to protect the company from liability. They would not even talk to an employee. I remember at one point we were told by management NOT to call HR and that ANY questions we had must be filtered through a manager. The highlight of the HR training was the annual ergonomic training. I think they did not want their desk workers getting carpel tunnel and costing the company extra health care benefits. But I will tell you we had excellent benefits and salaries were market competitive and I am sure it was because we had the unions.

    Unions won’t fix evil corporate management, but they will make it worth your while to put up with it. I am with Shelia, when I was younger, I saw unions as something to be tolerated. Now I see them as something vital to market place to protect the little guy.

  19. Great post, Sheila.

    I don’t have a union background, and my family owned a small business, but we were always pro-labor. Being political in Detroit meant knowing a lot of UAW members.

    One problem I heard from them was that the younger workers didn’t know the history of anti-union violence, or the factory conditions before unions. They took everything for granted and asked why shouldn’t I have more?

    As for the Air Traffic Controllers, they were idiots. They supported Reagan. Reagan wanted to destroy them and they were suckered into striking, giving Reagan the absolute right to fire them, but let us remember the facts. They had 26 demands, one was for wages and 25 were for safety changes. Reagan didn’t fire them to protect public safety. He refused to negotiate until they went on strike and then instituted all 25 of the safety issues they had demanded.

    And remember, he barred them from the profession for LIFE. We are just very lucky that having a bunch of inexperienced Air Traffic Controllers only resulted in record numbers of “near misses” and no real disasters.

    There is a difference between no allow public safety workers to go on strike and treating them like less than slaves.

  20. I am forever thankful to unions for our standard of living and so many employee benefits that became American standards for workers nation-wide. Non-bargaining employers copied the benefits to compete for workers and to discourage unionization in their own companies.

    The union-bargained benefits have included livable wages, employee health insurance, pensions, a 40 hour work week, overtime pay, weekends, equal pay for equal work, workers comp for work-related injuries, increased workplace and worker safety, vacations, child labor laws, unemployment insurance and benefits, and more. We have Social Security and Medicare and state and federal laws supporting a number of bargained benefits because unions organized workers to lobby politicians to support them. Employers got richer because an increasing middle class had purhasing power to fuel the economy. When UAW power was at its zenith, Detroit had the highest standard of living and highest proportion of home ownership in the nation.

    As unions have declined, so has our middle class while the gap between our richest and poorest citizens has grown. Citizen alienation and violence have grown as well.

    Bargaining and grievance procedures provide workers and employers with mechanisms to resolve issues without violence and with statutory referees to adjudicate unfair practices by both management and labor. Privately, company CEOs have admitted to me that grievance procedures provided them an important release valve for pent up animosities and made management aware of problems within their own ranks they would never have learned otherwise.

    Those same procedures also engage union leadership to corral frivolous grievances and non-performing workers within their ranks. As a 40 year union member who served in leadership within my union, I often learned when grievance reps had to have a ‘come-to-Jesus’ conversation with workers to improve workplace performance, to abandon frivolous and no-win grievances, and to correct unacceptable behaviors. Workers who had a jaundiced view of management and/or needed to clean up their own act often would not accept it when they didn’t have a case against management until and unless the union rep told the worker the same thing. Our union reps also provided detailed information on HOW to improve performance to avoid future disciplinary issues. That guidance often exceeded the specificity and helpfulness provided by management supervisors.

    Yes unions help workers, but they also improve both management and labor performance, provide fairer and safer workplaces, and they have passed numerous pieces of legislation to provide economic benefits for all workers that fuel the economy.

    Democracy in the workplace as well as in government is a good thing.

  21. As a second year educator in 1973, I served on the collective bargaining unit for teachers in my school district. It was a steep learning curve, but it afforded me valuable insights into the process. To this day, it is my belief that unions are inherently good…..with a few exceptions, of course……Above, others have offered many reasons why.

    I find many parallels to America at the turn of the 20th century to today. Who would have dreamed a global pandemic could have triggered unlegislated raises in the per hour wage and a resuscitation of the union movement? It will be interesting to see where it all leads.

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