How The Supreme Court (& Congress) Killed Unions.
And what we can do about it.
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To be perfectly honest, writing about the history of May Day and why it matters in 2023 got me fired up. I’ve had this “Solidarity Now” playlist running non-stop as I prep for celebrations and rallies to commemorate the day. (If you’re in Denver, rally at the Capitol steps on Monday at 4 p.m.!)
As the vanguard of modern labor politics, the surging union movement has gotten the full attention of my week-long high. To advance this cause and continue unionizing workers across the country, we must understand the forces that historically prevented labor rights. Imagine my surprise when during my research, I learned that the foremost union-killer in America was the “non-partisan,” “apolitical” Supreme Court!
Through a multi-generational Capitalist project to capture the most authoritarian branch of the American Government, business interests have hamstrung a once-promising surge of union membership that still plagues the labor movement to this day.
Early 20th-Century Success
As detailed in this week’s free article, the Second Industrial Revolution was barbaric to its workers, many of whom were killed and maimed on the job. Not wanting to die for another’s profit, workers were drawn to Socialist politics and unionization to protect themselves and better their lives. This century-old chart from Oxford University charts trades union membership rising from under 500,000 members in 1897 to almost 2,750,000 by 1913, an increase of 550%.
The working class’s growing Socialist sentiment terrified the political and Capitalist elite, especially after the 1917 Russian Revolution and the 1918 German Revolution. So, the Capitalist class did what it has always done to ensure its survival — it yielded just enough to dissuade workers from changing the system and tossing the Capitalists from their perch upon the top.
These concessions came in the form of two pieces of legislation. The first was The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, a.k.a. The Wagner Act. This law guaranteed the rights of workers to unionize, collectively bargain, and strike. To enforce its protections, the Act established the National Labor Relations Board to review cases and punish violators. The second was the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established a federal minimum wage, guaranteed overtime pay, and barred “exploitative” forms of child labor.
These two Acts were instrumental in protecting workers and guaranteeing a comfortable, working-class life, which many Americans enjoyed through the immediate post-War period. And, in conjunction with high tax rates established during World War II, America underwent “The Great Compression,” a period of relatively low wealth inequality that was quite prosperous for the American working class.
Enter Congress & The Supreme Court
In 1947, Congress overrode President Truman’s veto to pass the Taft-Hartley Act. Though its full effect would not be realized for decades, Taft-Hartley placed a termite in the foundation of middle-class America, letting it slowly eat away at the strong union protections established in the 1930s.
In addition to instituting so-called “Right to Work Laws,” which banned union shops, Taft-Hartley also added a slew of unfair labor practices exclusively targeted against unions, such as outlawing wildcat strikes (strikes without a union vote), political strikes, solidarity strikes (one group of workers striking with another), and certain forms of picketing, boycotts, and union-backed protests. The Act also mandated that the National Labor Relations Board, which had long been workers’ sole institutional protection against their bosses’ illegal practices, prioritize litigation against unions over all other concerns. This meant owners and their political allies could gum up the NLRB and grind its worker-protection cases to a halt with flimsy complaints.
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