May Day, labor, and the reason we need unions

A Liberal Dose

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Since it is almost May Day, I thought I would spend a couple of columns talking about the importance of labor, the labor movement, and unions. Some of you may wonder what that has to do with the first day of May. May 1 is recognized as Labor Day or International Workers Day by 103 countries around the world. Another half-dozen or so countries celebrate on the first Monday in May. The United States, of course, celebrates Labor Day in September - I think Canada is the only other country to go that route. This is ironic, since the events that led to May 1 being associated with the labor movement happened in the U.S. Next week, I will tell you the story of what those events were and why we celebrate the day in September here instead of May. This week I just want to introduce the topic by discussing why the labor movement was and still is so important.

First let’s talk a little bit about factories - a topic many of you out there are very familiar with. There used to be a lot of factories of various kinds in White County and throughout the Upper Cumberland. Most of them are gone, but several still remain and many of you  - or your parents or grandparents - have worked in them. Factories as we know them became a thing in the U.S. during the Industrial Revolution, starting in the 1790s and lasting until roughly 1840. A second wave of factories - and huge changes in how they were run - occurred during the Second Industrial Revolution (roughly the end of the American Civil War in 1865 until the beginning of World War I, in 1914).

During the first period, factory workers tended to fall into three categories: master craftsmen, journeymen, and apprentices (or beginners). A master craftsman knew from start to finish how to manufacture a given item and was an expert; journeymen were experienced hands; and apprentices were beginners. Workers labored in teams, called “gangs,” with the master as the “gang boss.” Each gang would build the item in question from scratch, the intermediate and beginner hands gradually learning the whole process. That started to change during the second period with the arrival of a guy named Frederick Winslow Taylor, the first modern “management consultant,” who introduced the concept of “scientific management.”

If your factory got “taylorized,” consultants would figure out exactly how long each step in production should take and set production quotas. They also moved away from the “work gang” and “gang boss” model. Instead of a handful of workers having thorough knowledge of the process, each worker was trained how to do only one small step (which would lead to Henry Ford’s assembly line process). A master craftsman commanded a good wage, because he was irreplaceable -with scientific management, everyone became easily replaceable and their wages were depressed. The knowledge, and thus the power, rested with management instead of workers. That situation, plus the complete lack of government regulation, led to the period from 1870 to the early 1890s becoming known as “The Gilded Age,” implying that everything was not as shiny and good as it seemed on the surface. Income inequality got worse than ever. The poor kept growing poorer, and the rich richer, at a much faster clip than before. This led to the growth of the labor movement, which helped fuel the Populist Movement (when workers allied with farmers), which led to the Progressive Era. This was the age of “robber barons,” wealthy entrepreneurs who were regarded by many as deeply unscrupulous.  It was during this period - 1870s/1880s - that bank and train robbers became romanticized folk heroes, because they were “sticking it to the man.” The same thing would happen during the Great Depression, with John Dillinger replacing Jesse James.

I demonstrate all that in class with the following activity. I announce that the classroom is a paper airplane factory, and I am the owner. I ask who knows how to make a paper airplane (it’s always less than half). I tell those students they are masters or journeymen and make $100 per day. The others are apprentices and earn $60. I then announce a contest: I will give a $500 bonus to whomever can make an airplane and successfully launch it the fastest. To ensure no one is cheating, I have management helpers closely monitor everyone, then I give the word, and they scramble to work. On the average, it takes about 11 seconds before the first airplane whizzes through the air. I congratulate the winner, tell him his check is in the mail, then inform him he is fired. So are all the $100 a day people - because we watched closely and saw, step-by-step, exactly how they made those airplanes. Now we have the knowledge, so they are expendable. In fact, they are dangerous. The other people - who don’t yet know how to make the airplanes - have their salaries reduced from $60 to $50. If they don’t like it they can quit. They will be easy to replace. Further, I now know that a paper airplane can be made in 11 seconds - so I expect each worker to produce one every 11 seconds, all day long, or I will dock their pay further.

I ask the students, if they had known me well enough to know I wasn’t trustworthy, what could they have done to change the outcome? Someone always figures out that all the workers could have made the planes slower, and/or launched them at the same time. “But how would you know to do that?”

The light comes on for them. They would have to organize. They would need a union.

You might need to go on strike, I tell them, so you would need a strike fund to live on in that eventuality. “How many of you, if you made $50 a day, would be willing to give $5 of it to your union as dues?” Out of 30 students, maybe 3 or 4 raise their hands. “This is why your union will fail,” I tell them, “and you will always lose.”

I inform them that in some states you are required to join, or at least contribute to, a union if your workplace has one. Other states (since 1948) are “right-to-work” states where you don’t have to join a union in order to work. Unions are mostly toothless in those states. I then show them a map of the states that have been right-to-work since the 40s. Then I show them a map of the states with the lowest wages and standard of living; the highest divorce rates, the lowest life expectancy; the most people on welfare and food stamps; the most people without insurance. It is pretty much the same map. After the economy collapsed, in 2008, several Midwestern states joined the “right-to-work” club. Their wages and standards of living have gone down.

As President Obama put it, the term really means “right to work for less money.” And those other maps show the consequences over time, thereby demonstrating the importance of the labor movement.

Next time we will look more closely at its history.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.    

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