The 19th century’s industrial revolution radically changed the workforce in the United States. The technological advances created a severe change in the economy, such as mass manufacturing and the increase competition between laborers. These changes catalyzed the already largely spread social and economic inequality between the working class and the upper class’s citizens. Due to the increase of demand, workers worked in inhumane conditions without any regulations from the government. By the early 20th century, laborers realized that their only chance to fight against the monopolies was if people organize into worker unions.
The union’s objective is to serve the interest of individuals within a certain class, industry, ethnic group, etc. by bringing them together in order to collectively bargain and lobby against their ruthless and overbearing employers. The historical development of labor unions is addressed by many historians, although people have different perspectives about the topic.
For instance, in the State of the Union the author Nelson Lichtenstein states that the social difference between the New Deal’s era and the 1960s civil rights movement negatively affected the idea of unionization because of the increasing interest of individuality, the more globalized economy and the lack of solidarity within the working class.
On the other hand, in her book the Knocking on Labor’s Door, Lane Windham argues that the 1960s civil rights movement facilitate the development of the unionization, because the Black freedom movement and the women’s liberation have many similarities with the union idea. Therefore, rather than hold back the development of unions the civil rights movement helped in the evolution.
Even though, Lane Windham provides many powerful evidences to support her argument that the civil right movement and unionization have many similar aspects, therefore the civil rights movement helped to form the unions.
Nelson Lichtenstein argues that unions are the key components of social democracy, however unions can only be strong if the workers experience solidarity. The civil rights movement opened led to right consciousness, which erased solidarity within the blue-collar workers. I believe that Lichtenstein is right, because if people aware of their rights and think individually they have the tendency to separate themselves from the communal interests. In order to understand the union idea, it is critical to see what was going on in the country’s economy before the Great Depression. In the late 19th century and the early 20th century the dominating products in the work field was natural resources such, such as coal, oil, steel and other goods like textile, meat packing and shipping, which slowly started shifting towards a new economic era by the 1910s. The new era was much more dependent on the consumers and the production started increasing to fulfil the consumers demands. However, the greediness of the big corporations led to a severe crash in the economy due to the overproduction of the products.
Companies started cutting the wages and the prices in order to compete with each other and by the 1929 almost every sector dropped. “Between 1929 and 1933 the gross national product (GNP), the sum of all the goods and services produced in the country, fell 29 percent. Construction was down 78 percent, manufacturing 54 percent, and investment a staggering 98 percent. In the summer of 1932, the steel industry operated at only 12 percent of its capacity.” (Lichtenstein, p. 24) The overproduction and greediness led the country to the Great Depression. The government understood that the only way to stop the crisis if they step into the economy as a consumer. Therefore, the Roosevelt cabinet established the New Deal and the Wagner Act, which protected workers’ rights from their employers and encouraged collective bargaining. At the time the main objective of the workers was to be able to work without worrying about losing it from one day to another.
Lichtenstein argues that one of the reasons why unions declined by the 1970s is because many of the powerful unions become corrupt establishments in the post 1950s, rather than useful power source for the working class. By 1940s the unemployment rates were decreasing and the wages were increasing. With the new political support workers could finally maintain a financially and socially more stable lifestyle. However, with the growth of the wages and the interest of unions. The working unions become oligarchies, many of the leaders used the workers support for self-interest, rather than to help the members achieve their mutual objectives. The corrupt unions paired with the growth of the 60s civil right movements and the post-war anti-communist propaganda led to an enormous decline in the blue-collared workers interest to join to the unions. Furthermore, Lichtenstein states that while the right of consciousness creates more equality in the county. It divides the workplace.
Lane Windham has a different point of view in her book she mentions that the civil rights movement was helping the unions and evolve, because the 1964’s Civil Rights Act. She says that: “Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited employment discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, color, religion, or national origin, arguably making it the single biggest challenge to employers’ workplace power since the passage of the Wagner Act.” Even though, minorities and women had been contributing to the economy, and since the Wagner Act workers in general had better conditions in the country it excluded women and minorities from the benefits. Therefore, the Civil Rights Act was a huge step for equality. Not only from the social aspect, but also in the workplace. However, Windham also claims that the role of unions has changed by the 1960s and even though the number of unions started decreasing the civil rights movement was indispensable for the working class.
Lane Windham also points out that the civil rights movement encourage the wish for individualism and independents. As people become more aware of their rights and they have the chance to achieve their goals by themselves they do not feel the desire to join to the unions as much anymore. The unions main objective is to represent the mutual interests of a group and fight for the group’s goals and requirements. However, if an individual believes that she/he can achieve their goals by themselves then they do not need the unions to fight for their goals. “Working people confronted an enormous increase in employer resistance to union organizing in that decade; from 1970 to 1980…” . In comparison to Windham, Lichtenstein argues that the increase of confrontation at the workplace happened because the unions were powerless against the officials and judges due to the forming union laws. He also addresses that the judicial system became more involved in the workforce. This phenomenon was not only a form of activism for the minority groups, but also for other problems too.