Category Archives: Labor History

The Radical Roots of Janus

Source: Joseph A. McCartin, American Prospect, February 27, 2018

The attorney whose arguments were heard in the Supreme Court yesterday—a decade after his death—actually wanted all unions outlawed. …. As the Supreme Court heard the pivotal union case, Janus v. AFSCME, on Monday, an unacknowledged presence haunted its chambers: that of Sylvester Petro, who conceived the argument on which the case turns. Although he died in 2007, this ideologically driven, anti-union law professor originated the legal strategy behind this case. His radical vision illuminates Janus’s profound implications. 

Petro was the first to contend that public-sector collective bargaining was simply a form of politics, and that therefore, any effort to require government workers to pay “agency fees” to a union in return for its representational work amounted to compelled political speech that infringed on their First Amendment rights—the argument that Illinois public employee Mark Janus embraced in this case. Petro tried unsuccessfully to get the court to endorse that argument in the 1977 case of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the precedent Janus seeks to overturn.

Yet despite Petro’s seminal role in shaping their argument, Janus and his supporters seem intent on erasing any memory of Petro. His name is not mentioned among the voluminous citations of some two-dozen briefs supporting Janus. 

Petro’s invisibility is intentional. Those who seek to advance his vision today know that any reference to his radically anti-union views would expose their equally radical aims. ….

The Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike

Source: Stuff You Missed in History Class, Podcast, February 7, 2018 (audio)

Memphis sanitation workers stayed off the job starting January 12, 1968 in a strike that lasted for nine weeks. This was the strike that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis, Tennessee, where he was assassinated on April 4 of that year.

Here’s the “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech.
Here’s a link to The Root’s series of videos on the strike.

Tracy’s Research: ….

1,300 Men: Memphis Strike ‘68

Source: The Root and Striking Voices, 2018

….The Root partnered with Striking Voices, a Memphis-based multimedia journalism project, created by journalist and author Emily Yellin, to produce 1,300 Men: Memphis Strike ‘68, an 11-part video series that brings the sanitation strikers’ stories to the forefront where they belong. Yellin, who has written about the South extensively for the New York Times, first interviewed Memphis sanitation strikers 20 years ago. Striking Voices builds on the visionary work of Yellin’s parents, David and Carol Lynn Yellin, journalists who began chronicling the 1968 strike in real time, resulting in a six-year, multimedia, oral, written and visual history archival project, now housed at the library of the University of Memphis. Most of the vivid film footage featured in 1,300 Men was collected by her parents in 1968 as a cornerstone of their pioneering work…..

Reconstructing resistance and renewal in public service unionism in the twenty-first century: lessons from a century of war and peace

Source: Whyeda Gill-McLure & Christer Thörnqvist, Labor History, Volume 59, 2018
(subscription required)

From the abstract:
This special issue uses the occasion of the centenary of the Whitley Commission Reports to illuminate the contemporary crisis in public service industrial relations from a historical perspective. In all six countries studied—Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and the USA—public service employment is labour intensive and quantitatively significant in the overall economy. Public services have also been major targets of neoliberal reforms, starting in the UK and the USA at the turn of the 1980s and in the other countries about a decade later. In addition, the relatively high union density and the political dimension of public services and public union strategies have been major targets of new public management and more latterly austerity. However, the regressive period has had a differential impact in different countries. In the liberal market economies of the UK and the USA, the neoliberal turn has destabilised traditional patterns of public sector industrial relations to greatest effect. While in the more coordinated market economies, traditional arrangements and values have been more resistant to austerity and neoliberal reforms. We attempt to shed light on these differential impacts through a critical analysis of the historical evolution of public sector industrial relations in each country.

100 years of Whitleyism: a century of public service industrial relations in Europe and the US
Source: Guest Editors – Whyeda Gill-McLure and Christer Thörnqvist, Labor History, Volume 59, 2018
(subscription required)

How So-Called “Right to Work” Laws Aim to Silence Working People

Source: Amy Traub, Dēmos, 2017

From the introduction:
In America, working people have the freedom to band together with their co-workers to negotiate for a fair return on our work. We have the freedom to act together so can we speak with a more powerful voice. We have the freedom to join and form unions. Yet today, powerful interests want to take away that freedom. Corporate lobbyists have pushed federal and state-level policies deceptively named “Right to Work” laws that strip away the freedom to negotiate for a fair return on our work. These laws are designed to drain workers’ collective resources by requiring unions to provide representation to people who make no contribution to sustain the union. In essence, so-called “right to work” laws aim to silence working Americans, which causes their wages and working conditions to deteriorate, making it more difficult to sustain a family. Economists find that in states that have adopted these laws, the typical full-time worker is paid $1,500 a year less than their counterpart in a state that has not undermined workers’ rights.

This Demos Explainer clarifies what misleadingly named “right to work” laws do, how they silence workers’ collective voice, and what their impact has been in states that adopt them. We also explore the roots of this anti-worker policy in efforts to cut wages and solidify racial divisions among workers in the Jim Crow South. Today, as “right to work” laws are promoted in a growing number of states and in the U.S. Congress, Demos aims to ensure that elected leaders, the media, and ordinary Americans understand the true nature of this policy.

Can Labor Still Use the Wagner Act?

Source: Joseph A. McCartin, Dissent, Fall 2017

…. Eighty years after the Wagner Act’s validation, the triumph of collective bargaining in mass production industries seems as ancient as Exodus, and Cox’s optimism as quaint as greeting card poetry. Whereas the industrial Midwest once throbbed with demands for industrial democracy, today its depleted cities continue to bleed jobs and its hinterlands struggle with rampant opioid addiction. Flint, once home to a mobilized working class capable of taming General Motors, is today a desperately impoverished city lacking in decent jobs, whose residents continue to suffer from the aftermath of lead poisoning. Whereas sit-down strikers were protected by Governor Frank Murphy in 1937, today’s Michigan is a “right-to-work” state presided over by Governor Rick Snyder, a venture capitalist whose efforts to wrest local control away from distressed communities led directly to Flint’s poisoning. Little remains of the industrial union movement born in 1937, as private-sector union membership rates today dip toward 6 percent.

Nor is there reason to suppose the Supreme Court will help matters as it did eighty years ago. Today’s Court instead seems bent on interring the last legal vestiges of the New Deal labor order. In the case of Janus v. AFSCME, which the Court will decide in the coming term, the right of public-sector unions to collect “agency fees” from the workers they represent is being challenged. Opponents argue that government workers’ unions are merely political vehicles, and therefore granting them the right to collect agency fees infringes on the rights of workers who might not share the politics of the union that represents them. The case threatens to overturn a forty-year-old precedent, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), which recognized the unions’ rights to collect such fees in the interest of orderly workplace governance wherever state law allowed the practice…..

For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America

Source: University of Maryland Libraries, 2017

Labor unions were created by workers to protect their rights. Less recognized is labor’s role in advancing civil liberties, social justice, and economic equality for all Americans.

The labor movement has always supported the quest for economic justice, including demands for an eight-hour workday and a living wage. From the beginning of the 20th century, organized labor has championed religious freedom and the evolving demands of the environmental movement. By the end of the century, the labor movement consistently promoted international human rights.

In contrast, people of color, women, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community faced exclusion, segregation, and discrimination by unions. These groups created their own organizations, fought for inclusion, and pushed the labor movement to broaden its central principles of liberty, justice, and equality. In the 21st century, organized labor has become an advocate for the rights of all these communities, including anti-discrimination and civil rights legislation, marriage equality, and protections for undocumented workers.

This exhibit explores the American labor movement’s contributions to social progress using documents, images, videos, and artifacts from the Labor History Collections within the Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Maryland Libraries.

Iowa Labor Collection To Digitize 1,200 Oral Histories

Source: Sarah Boden, Iowa Public Radio, September 4, 2017

More than 1,200 interviews documenting Iowa’s labor history are set to be digitized and will be available online sometime next year, making the Iowa Labor Collection one of the most comprehensive labor oral history achieves in the nation. Coal mining, meat packing, and tire and rubber manufacturing were all important industries that drew people away from farms and into Iowa’s cities during the 20th century. That’s according to Mary Bennett, the special collections coordinator at the State historical Society of Iowa, who says digitizing these interviews about Iowa’s union and labor history is crucial, since reel-to-reel tapes tend to deteriorate….
Iowa Labor History Oral Project