In Harlan County, Ky., the history of labor struggles runs deep. The county, once a center of coal mining in the U.S., was the setting of the one of the largest labor actions in the country’s history. At the outset of the Great Depression, miners attempting to organize under the United Mine Workers faced almost every union busting tactic in the book.
The mining bosses employed private muscle, the county’s crooked sheriff and eventually Kentucky National Guard troops to stop the miners from organizing. Strikers and union busters skirmished for months, resulting in the deaths of police and strikebreakers as well as the lead mining organizer, Harry Simms. The events would be immortalized in the labor hymn, “Which Side Are You On?” and would later become known as Bloody Harlan or simply the Harlan County War.
Still, the miners persisted after the violence died down. The passage of 1935’s pro-labor Wagner Act bolstered union power in the U.S. and unionization rates skyrocketed. UMW became one of the strongest unions in the country and mine workers one of the most organized professions.
The number of unionized workers continued to grow until it peaked in the mid-1940s. Workers’ power had never been greater. Then, just as legislation had given labor a seat at the table, legislation took that seat away. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act gutted unions’ ability to organize and wield power. Unionization rates fell sharply and now stand at around 10% of workers.
What does this history lesson have to do with today? Over the last few months, workers and organizers in Bessemer, Ala. attempted to unionize thousands of workers at an Amazon plant. Organizers with the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) faced every legal — and a couple illegal — union busting tactic in the book.
Management hired off-duty cops to moonlight as security with a badge, a gun and a marked police car. They held captive audiences of on-the-clock workers and showed them hours of anti-union propaganda. They got the city to streamline traffic lights leading to the plant so organizers had less time to pass out union literature at red lights. They illegally obtained a union ballot drop box inside the facility and at time of writing, the postmaster of Bessemer has not clarified who all had keys to the box.
Even with all this, the union drive seemed like a fair fight for a while. National politicians endorsed the union drive and even President Biden alluded to supporting it. In the end, the union drive was crushed with only around 30% of ballots cast in favor of unionizing.
Despite a renewed public interest in organized labor, despite the largest strike wave in the U.S. since the 1940s, the Amazon union drive was firmly quashed. And honestly, when I heard, I was surprised. Then I was sad for the workers. Then I was mad at Amazon. Then I was mad at myself for being surprised.
Taft-Hartley is still the law of the land and as long as it is, this will be the likeliest outcome of any union drive — no matter the public pressure or scrutiny.
Labor needs structural, fundamental change to regain its power in American politics.
As helpful and even life-saving as something like a stimulus check can be, giving more people the ability to organize their workplaces, the ability to collectively bargain for the working conditions and wages they deserve would be a far greater triumph for working people. Give someone a fish, they eat for a day. Teach them to fish, and they eat for a lifetime.
This is why the most groundbreaking legislation in Congress right now is the Protecting the Right to Organize, or PRO Act. The bill repeals much of Taft-Hartley and would unshackle the hands of organized labor.
If the bill passes, the so-called “Right to Work” laws at the state level would be null and void. These “Right to Work'' laws allow non-union workers to enjoy the benefits of working in a union shop — higher wages, benefits, safer conditions etc. — while not paying dues to the union. This weakens the power and bargaining position of a union.
This is why “Right to Work” laws have been a favorite tactic of anti-worker politicians. The PRO Act would also crack down on the kind of union election tampering that is rampant today and impose stiffer penalties on companies that engage in union busting.
Usually transformative legislation like the PRO Act doesn’t get very far. Medicare for All, for example, hasn’t even had a vote on the House floor, but the PRO Act passed the House with more bipartisan support than the stimulus bill.
Let me repeat that: The PRO Act was more popular in the house than literally giving people free money.
The bill is now at the Senate, where progressive reforms go to die. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said that when the bill has 50 co-sponsors (it now has 45) he will put it up to a floor vote. President Biden has said he will sign the bill into law if it comes across his desk.
The House Republicans who broke from their caucus to vote for the PRO Act were from the more industrial and heavily unionized states of New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Even in their shrunken, emaciated state, unions still hold enough sway that Republicans from union states felt pressure to vote for it. Imagine how much pressure labor could put on Congress if it passes. Wages could go up, healthcare could be universal and infrastructure could be modernized.
The failure of the union drive in Bessemer shows that for labor to make the resurgence it’s primed to make, it needs the structural change of the PRO Act. When workers are able to collectively bargain it gives them a fighting chance against the stifling economic and social inequality that plagues American society.
Politics is too important to be left to the politicians. If union power grew in America, people wouldn’t need to hope against hope that some politician in an unfair system would deign to fight for progress.
People could participate in economic and social change first hand rather than put on an “I Voted!” sticker every two years in November and pray something changes. If the PRO Act passes, working people could bargain, strike, picket and agitate for the wages and conditions they deserve.
Philip is a junior studying Journalism. Do you feel as though unions should be integrated further into American culture? Send all comments to email@example.com