Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Let’s Honor the True Spirit of Labor Day

In the late summer of 1921, an epic but surprisingly little-known confrontation took place between the forces of labor and capital. The battle unfolded not in one of the great industrial cities but in the rural coal country of southern West Virginia. Miners in the region — angered by life-threatening working conditions, corporate domination of the grim company towns in which they lived, the violent suppression of their attempts at unionization and the murder of a pro-labor local sheriff by company-hired thugs — took up arms to confront the coal companies in what became known as the Battle of Blair Mountain. It was the largest labor uprising in American history and the biggest armed uprising in the United States since the Civil War.

A veritable proletarian army of about 10,000 miners faced a better-armed force of more than 2,000 men — law enforcement officers and others — equipped with high-powered rifles, machine guns and company-provided private planes that dropped shrapnel bombs on union headquarters. Though the miners did not retreat, they ultimately put down their arms when more than 2,000 federal troops arrived to intervene.

That an event of this magnitude remains so obscure reveals how marginal the story of labor’s often violent and bloody struggle for human dignity is in standard narratives of American history. This is in striking contrast to the long-overdue, if still unfinished, attempt to reckon with our nation’s tortured racial past. There has been no comparable reckoning with our labor history — the most violent in the Western world — and there should be. It is a history that, alongside the struggle for racial equality (with which it is complexly entangled), has profoundly shaped the country we live in today.

The miners’ defeat at Blair Mountain was the culmination of a long series of major losses for labor dating back to the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. Perhaps the most crushing defeat came in 1894, when the American Railway Union confronted the nation’s railroad tycoons with a strike. The New York Tribune called it “the greatest battle between labor and capital that has ever been inaugurated in the United States.” The strike, which involved as many as 250,000 workers in 27 states, was defeated when the United States Army made 16,000 troops available to protect the railroads — a remarkable commitment, given that the entire U.S. Army at the time consisted of roughly 25,000 troops. By the time the strike was over, more than 50 people were dead.

With socialists worldwide already celebrating the first of May — May Day — to display labor’s strength and to honor its struggle for an eight-hour workday, President Grover Cleveland, troubled by May Day’s association with radicalism, pushed for the rapid designation of the first Monday of September as Labor Day. Thus was born an American alternative to May Day.

As early as 1922, workers in most European countries as well as in Australia and New Zealand had organized various mass political parties dedicated to furthering the interests of the working class — Labourite, Social Democratic, Socialist, Communist. Yet even though American workers lacked a comparable party to defend their interests, they were to make gains during the Great Depression and the labor-friendly administration of Franklin Roosevelt. Accounting for just 11 percent of the labor force in 1933, union membership more than doubled, to 29 percent, by 1939. (Crucially, the Wagner Act of 1935 enlisted the power of the federal government to enforce the right of workers to form unions and to bargain collectively.)

But it was only through militant actions, including sit-down strikes and bloody battles, that anti-union citadels such as General Motors and United States Steel were finally breached. With the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established the eight-hour workday, the 40-hour workweek, the minimum wage and overtime pay, labor’s “golden era,” which ran roughly from the late 1930s to the early 1970s, began in earnest. By 1953, nearly 18 million workers — more than one in three — were enrolled in a union.

A strong union movement delivered many benefits to Americans during that time. In highly unionized industries, workers were able to negotiate generous benefits packages that included health care, paid vacations and pensions, in addition to guaranteed annual wage increases. Taxes during this era were steeply progressive, with the top marginal income tax rate remaining at 90 percent until 1963 and staying at 70 percent through the 1970s. In this regard, the United States of the New Deal era exemplified a broader pattern: Strong labor movements make for higher levels of social well-being. This is a principal reason that highly unionized countries like Norway and Denmark top today’s measures of social progress.

After peaking in strength in the mid-1950s, unions began a slow process of decline. Initially, the decline was gradual; while the percentage of unionized workers fell to 27 percent in 1970 from 33 percent in 1958, absolute numbers continued to grow, increasing from 18.1 million in 1958 to 20.8 million in 1970. But after President Ronald Reagan’s firing of 13,000 federal aircraft controllers in their ill-fated strike of 1981, union membership began to decline sharply. By 1990, the absolute number of union members had declined by more than three million over the course of the decade. As workers became more insecure, the number of strikes also dropped, to 44 in 1990 from 235 in 1979.

Today the labor movement finds itself in its weakest position since the early 1930s. We have now had ample time to see the effects of labor’s decline: stagnating wages, high levels of inequality and a shrinking middle class. Major corporations like Uber and Amazon ferociously oppose unionization. (Uber, along with other ride-share companies, recently spent more than $220 million to defeat a pro-union proposition in California.) As union strength has declined, the pay gap between corporate executives and ordinary workers has reached staggering proportions. In 1965 the ratio of chief executive pay to worker pay was 15 to 1; by 2020, it had risen to 351 to 1.

Yet even as union membership has fallen, there are grounds for hope. Public attitudes toward labor are more positive than they have been in years, and public sentiment toward big business has taken a sharp downturn. Just nine years ago, the labor-funded “Fight for $15” campaign fought for the seemingly quixotic goal of raising the minimum wage to $15; since then, eight states have enacted a $15 minimum wage. So political dynamics can change, sometimes with stunning speed.

If the past is any guide to the future, the struggle of labor against concentrated corporate power is likely to be long and difficult. Winning an eight-hour workday took more than half a century, and the labor movement did not succeed in unionizing the steel industry for more than 40 years.

Today, organizing corporate giants such as Walmart and Amazon will require even more than the commitment of dedicated organizers and the combined efforts of the entire labor movement. Successful unionization will also depend on strong support from a public that, though increasingly worried about surging inequality and the decline of the middle class, has yet to recognize the connection between a strong labor movement and the reversal of these corrosive trends.

Jerome Karabel is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, who is working on a book about how the United States differs from other wealthy democratic countries.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

Source: Read Full Article