Whether he intended it or not, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's drive for labor reform in state government has set off a national debate (or brawl) on the role of unions in the public sector. Walker demanded that the unions representing state employees make major concessions on wages and benefits, which they agreed to. But then he went much further by attempting to decertify most of the unions for public employees. Democrats in the Wisconsin State Senate fled the state in boycott, and there have been union "solidarity" demonstrations in more than 40 cities.
Nor is Wisconsin alone: Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are pursuing the same agenda. The stakes for organized labor couldn't be any higher: since unions now represent less than 10 percent of private-sector workers, the loss of public-sector members would be a devastating, perhaps even fatal blow. Therefore, it was hardly surprising that President Obama weighed in on what he called "an assault against unions."
Ironically, Wisconsin was the first state, in 1959, to allow government workers to join unions. Also ironic, the political godfather of 20th century unions, Franklin D. Roosevelt, opposed organizing government workers. He feared a conflict of interest if government workers had to negotiate with public officials they might help elect or defeat, calling government unions "unthinkable and intolerable."
AFL-CIO boss George Meany also opposed government unions in the 1950s, saying, "It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government." Meany, however, changed his mind later. Walker denies that he is trying to reduce union power -- "When they say it's about worker rights, it's really about big union bosses running their own political dynasties" -- but labor leaders say they know better due to the fact that they've already made monetary concessions. Barring a foreign policy flare-up, the battle over unions should be the political story of 2011.
To give a capsule history of the labor movement, unions have existed as long as there have been factories. For most of the 19th century, unions struggled to gain a permanent place in the workplace due to severe recessions and ethnic divisions among workers. During the wartime industries of World War I, the number of union members hit 5 million, or about a quarter of the work force, but those ranks were quickly cut in half after the war ended.
With the Depression leading directly to the landslide election of Roosevelt in 1932 and huge Democratic congressional majorities, the New Deal sought to enhance worker rights. FDR signed the Wagner Act, sponsored by New York Sen. Robert Wagner, that guaranteed workers the right to join unions without employer reprisals. The immensely popular FDR sent Department of Labor employees out telling workers that, "the president wants you to join a union." Business and conservative groups howled that the government was interfering in economic management, but the number of union members soared from less than 10 percent of workers to roughly half in the big "industrial" states like New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio.
Organized labor also became a major player within the Democratic Party, delivering 2-to-1 majorities for FDR and Harry Truman as the Democrats won five straight national elections.
Shortly after World War II ended in 1945, factory workers began to face layoffs and wage cuts due to the broad demobilization of wartime industries. At the same time, a recession was beginning. Organized labor, worried that the history of losing members after a war would repeat itself, responded with a wave of strikes to show labor's clout. This tactic backfired as the strikes deepened the economic and social turmoil, causing voters to worry that the nation was slipping back into Depression conditions. Republicans ran on the slogan in 1946, "Had Enough?" and won control of both Houses of Congress for the first time since 1928 in an election that sent both Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy to Washington.
Anti-labor conservatives saw their opportunity and seized it by passing the Taft-Hartley Act that sought to curb labor's power and militancy. Sponsored by Ohio Sen. Robert Taft (son of President William H. Taft) and Newark Rep. Fred Hartley, both Republicans, the Taft-Hartley Act strongly restricted union activity. The "closed shop," where only union members could be hired, was banned nationally. Wildcat strikes were prohibited, as were sympathy strikes. Taft-Hartley also allowed presidents to order workers to end a strike if there were a "national emergency" and to order a 60-day cooling-off period before strikes. And union leaders were all required to take a "loyalty oath." Perhaps most importantly, Taft-Hartley allowed states to adopt right-to-work laws, in effect, allowing them to opt out of federal labor law if they chose. Under such right-to-work rules, a worker can never be required to join a union. Over the next generation, 22 states, including every Southern state and a majority of states in the Farm Belt and Mountain states, adopted right-to-work laws.
Truman vetoed the Taft-Hartley Act, but a coalition of Republicans and anti-labor Southern Democrats overrode him. The Republicans were responding to business, while the Southerners had mixed motivations: some wanted to court industrial development by keeping unions out of the South, while others hated the fact that labor supported the nascent civil rights movement.
Shortly after World War II ended, Northern labor leaders announced Operation Dixie, where they would spend $6 million to extend New Deal liberalism into the South by recruiting another million members, mostly in the region's textile mills. Five years later, Samuel Lubell dubbed it Operation Fizzle, because the organizing drive failed to reach 10 percent of its goals. Most union leaders blamed Taft-Hartley for its failure.
But there can be no doubt that Taft-Hartley had a huge impact on labor history. Union membership as a percentage of the work force peaked in the 1945-53 period at 35 percent. Since then, union membership has drifted steadily down: to roughly 30 percent in 1960, 25 percent in the 1970s, less than 20 percent in the 1980s before stabilizing at less than 15 percent in the last two decades. (Full disclosure statement: I was once a member of the Teachers Union in Los Angeles).
But cheaper labor costs have undeniably been a factor in the growth of the South and Mountain West. The South's drive for industry paid off. In 1933, per-capita incomes in the South were only 55 percent of the national average. Today, that figure is nearly 90 percent. In the West, right-to-work Arizona and Nevada have also had huge gains. (To be fair, California and Washington, which have strong labor movements, also went through huge booms).
In many ways, the Reagan administration was the turning point in labor-management relations. When the air traffic controllers broke their anti-strike clause, President Ronald Reagan broke them, firing them instantly and hiring non-union replacements. (The public supported Reagan by a 2-to-1 margin). Business followed the president's lead by doing everything possible to undermine unions in the private sector, from declaring bankruptcy to get out of union contracts to moving plants to non-union areas or even overseas.
Labor responded with an attempt at an all-out mobilization to defeat Reagan in the 1984 election. Unions endorsed Walter Mondale a full year before the election and spent $10 million in an independent expenditure on his behalf. But Mondale's opponents quickly labeled him a "special-interests" candidate and he lost 49 states to Reagan. Until President Obama won in 2008, Hubert Humphrey in 1968 was the last "labor Democrat" to come close to winning the presidency.
All of which brings us back to the Wisconsin situation. In throwing down the gauntlet to labor, Walker and conservatives should be careful what they wish for. As the birthplace of progressive reforms, Wisconsin was the first state to allow recall of public officials. Walker is on solid ground in winning concessions from the public unions, but the public does not want those unions abolished. He could have a recall election in his future if he goes too far.
He just might be doing so by signing legislation to end collective bargaining. The Gallup Poll and other surveys show large majorities favor public employees making financial concessions, but strongly oppose (61 percent to 33 percent) crippling labor's ability to negotiate.
The union movement now is very different from 1955 when the craft unions of the American Federation of Labor merged with the factory-dominated Congress of Industrial Organizations to form the AFL-CIO. Back then, virtually all union members were private-sector workers like plumbers, coal miners, autoworkers and steelworkers. Today, the "typical" union member is a teacher or nurse.
As noted above, private-sector union members have hit an all-time low. If organized labor loses its ability to organize the public sector, it may well become an endangered species. This is organized labor's most important test since 1958 when right-to-work initiatives were on the ballot in major states like California and Ohio. It can, therefore, be expected to fight to the death. Eliminating public-sector unions would pretty much end the movement's clout in American politics.
Patrick Reddy is a Democratic political consultant in California and the co-author of "California After Arnold."