Shortly after World War II, the United States achieved its highest number of union members. The organized workforce stood at almost 50 percent. Since that time, a steady decline in union labor brought the percentage down to less that 15 percent. Why has this happened? Here are a few of the reasons.
By BOB HEMENWAY
Special to The Star
First, a high tide raises all boats, and non-union workers were able to reap some of the benefits that had been fought for and won with strikes and hard bargaining by labor unions. Many non-union workers, aware of this, were now able to go to the management side and negotiate their own package.
The Davis-Bacon act, passed into law in 1931, was seldom used to any advantage for the workers until after the war, but then the prevailing wage became a factor as companies attempted to bring low-wage workers from depressed areas into communities where unions had set the wage scale.
The communities cried foul. The prevailing wage is not necessarily the union wage but is, in reality, the local wage. This law pertains to any project where any government funds are involved. Over the years, many officials have tried to abolish or amend this law. But many lower-wage workers were brought in where the prevailing wage law didnt apply and once again, the union workforce was reduced.
Now comes the killer. If your company was mobile, you could move relocate to a state that was less union-friendly. Or you could take your company to another country, a country that had an income threshold much lower than that of the United States. This touched everyone. If it didnt happen to a family member, you probably knew someone who was affected. Plant closings were the norm.
Yet another dynamic was at work. We had started down the path where we would no longer be the supplier of quality merchandize to the world. We were becoming more service-oriented. Workers who had moved out of the factories found other jobs, often at lower pay and with fewer benefits.
Workers tied to communities such as firefighters, police or teachers huddled together to withstand the drop in union membership. The nations workforce was changing.
The building trade unions fared better. If you wished to build a sizable structure in your locale, you couldnt build it in, say, Mexico. True, you could bring cheaper help from another country to do some of the work. This is nothing new.
Early on, the railroads brought in many Chinese workers. During harvest, California, Florida and other states bring in undocumented workers.
The building trades figured it out. Do a better job. They took a quote from Samuel Gompers and put it to work. He was born in 1850 and was the first president of the AFL. He said, The worst crime that a company can commit is to operate without a profit.
You dont have to be a genius to figure out that if your company doesnt make money they cant afford to pay you. The building trades sent their apprentices and also their journeymen to school. In each craft the top people in their field trained workers and created the finest craftsmen in the world.
Was organized labor good for the country? Yes. Almost all our citizenry are better off because of the efforts of labor unions. Will labor ever regain a majority of American workers? Probably not, but some great strides were made for the benefit of all of the workers.
Lets recall another great quote from the venerable Samuel Gompers.
What does labor want? he said. We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.
That kind of thinking was, and is, good for our country no matter where you stand.
Bob Hemenway of Kansas City has been a member of Pipe Fitters Local 533 for more than 60 years. He is retired from A.D. Jacobson Co. as a general foreman.