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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Republicans in state legislatures of Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio are trying to cut back collective bargaining rights for workers in the public sector. A recent New York Times article said labor experts describe these bills as the largest assault on collective bargaining in recent memory, striking at the heart of an American labor movement that has already atrophied.

We asked Philip Dray to take a look back at the labor movement. Dray is the author of the book "There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America." FRESH AIR book critic Maureen Corrigan listed it as one of her favorite books of 2010.

She wrote: In the late 19th century, ordinary people - mill girls, garment workers and miners - embraced the revolutionary idea that by joining together they might better their lives. Philip Dray's spectacular narrative history of the American labor movement reads like a novel, filled with dramatic acts of barbarism and bravery.

Philip Dray, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Is there a chapter in labor history that the current attempts to reduce the negotiating power of public employees in Wisconsin and several other states, is there a chapter that this reminds you of?

Mr. PHILIP DRAY (Author, "There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America"): Well, one that comes to my mind is - almost seems like a bookend to it - is the 1981 PATCO strike, in which President Reagan fired 11,000 air traffic controllers.

The reason I say that is partly because at that time the labor movement overall was sort of caught napping a bit. I give a little background: The air traffic controllers had - most of their grievances had to with on-the-job pressures, you know, just that they felt they wanted a better schedule, this type of thing. It wasn't so much about wages.

And they had endorsed Reagan for president. They were one of the few unions to do so. And their president had met with President-elect Reagan. They thought they sort of had a, you know, kind of an understanding.

But when the first year of Reagan's term, when the air traffic controllers union tried to press their case, Reagan rejected it, and basically said if you - you know, if you aren't at work in 48 hours, you're all going to be fired.

And he called their bluff, and he did end up firing them. You know, presidents historically had been sometimes hostile to unions, but no one had ever decimated a union completely like that. And that strike, what Reagan accomplished basically was to end the whole taboo against crossing a picket line and scabbing, the idea being that he replaced them with non-union air traffic controllers.

And it sort of set a precedent then for private industry in the coming years that, well, if the president can do this, so can we.

GROSS: And the PATCO workers lost things in addition to their jobs. There were post-job benefits that they lost.

Mr. DRAY: That's right. It was a kind of vicious thing because they - the administration not only fired them and decertified the union but then went -some of them were imprisoned, actually, and then they went after their benefits, and a lot of the PATCO veterans, you know, it was a sad affair.

People lost their homes. It was a very, very upsetting predicament, really, for many of them. I think they still have a website where they try to, you know, be in touch with one another and this kind of thing.

But yeah, it was definitely a seminal moment, and the reason it makes me think of what's happening now, I guess, is that now again you see labor issues thrust - become a national issue. But this time around there's much greater kind of unanimity among the labor activists and unions.

Everyone is sort of on a similar page, if not the same page, trying to resist what they see as a direct assault on this important bastion of unionization, being collective bargaining.

GROSS: Before the New Deal, and it was during the New Deal that there were laws passed that legalized collective bargaining and mandated that company officials had to meet with a union and recognize the union, what are some of the tactics that companies used to break up strikes and to try to break unions?

Mr. DRAY: Well, the truth is, on a certain level America has never really been fully comfortable with labor unions. The idea of a collective of workers demanding salaries and various rights of one kind or another, there's always been a lot of pushback, and it's taken various forms from - everything from locking employees out, firing people who dared to come forward with grievances, the use of labor spies.

This came out during the New Deal, when they had an investigation. You know, they found that a lot of large corporations used hundreds of spies to kind of unsettle union activity, not to mention, of course, just the hesitancy of the government to take - assume a role.

In other words, for many years it was debated whether legislatures had the right to pass worker safety laws, for instances, and the courts would often decide that no, they don't have to do that. It's up to the employer and between the employer and a worker.

So every type of impediment - in addition, of course, sending in police, soldiers. You know, federal soldiers would be sent in to put down labor disputes.

A lot of these large - you know, every city in America has these large red brick armories in the cities, and I know I always used to think that those were there for soldiers to gather to go abroad or something. But those were built in an era when people wanted government - authorities wanted a place where soldiers could gather to put down local labor unrest.

And so the spirit of contention between labor and industry was at a very high level for a long time, and it was that which collective bargaining was really meant to address.

GROSS: How did workers win the legal right to collective bargaining during the FDR administration?

Mr. DRAY: It came about really - it was something that had kind of been in the air for quite a long time. It came out of what's known as the progressive era, when a lot of people like Louis Brandeis, a future justice on the Supreme Court, and others saw that too much damage was being done from labor strife.

And oddly enough, even, say, the Pullman strike of 1894, in which President Cleveland sent in the federal troops to put down the rioters in Chicago, his own commission then afterwards recommended a different approach was needed, essentially setting the table for these type of reforms, that we can't just have go on. This is no good for industry. It's no good for workers to have this sense of constant confrontation, et cetera, burning of buildings, this kind of thing, or whatever that had gone on in Chicago.

And so there began to be this kind of impetus for what they called industrial democracy, the idea that these issues would best be negotiated and resolved so everyone could move on in a productive way.

GROSS: And what's the legislation that actually put collective bargaining in the law books?

Mr. DRAY: It was the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act, after Senator Robert Wagner of New York, who was its chief advocate.

But it was very much - you know, I think it's important to note these things were moving along for decades, the sort of momentum for them. It just, it took the economic, the sharp economic hardship of the Depression to finally convince enough people, Congress, that this was - type of thing was essential, an essential reform.

GROSS: So after the pro-union legislation that was passed during the New Deal, in 1947 the Taft-Hartley bill is passed. It's vetoed by President Truman, but his veto is overrode in Congress.

So what rights that the unions had won did Taft-Hartley pull back?

Mr. DRAY: Well, it sort of - what it really did was - I mean, for one thing, Taft-Hartley was meant to be just the first step in rolling back a lot of the New Deal reforms. But basically what it did is it allowed individual states to pass anti-labor laws of their own, most significantly the right to work laws, which meant that union membership would not be required as a condition of employment.

What that does is it undermines the closed shop, which is sort of the basis of a lot of union strength, when you have a workplace where everyone belongs to the same union.

It forbade industry-wide collective bargaining, which of course could be, or was, an effective way for unions to really exert their power say, across even different companies.

It also meant employers could sue unions over what they called secondary boycotts - in other words, if unions encouraged their members not to purchase goods from a certain manufacturer, that kind of thing.

And perhaps most symbolically, it demanded that leaders of the leading, the big unions, sign an affidavit that they were not members of the Communist Party, which set about kind of a disruption within organized labor itself because there was disagreement about whether this was the right thing to do or not.

And this whole problem of radicals within the labor movement, communists, should they be here, should we expel them, sort of became then kind of an obsession in the labor movement for several years.

GROSS: Now, let me quote a couple statistics that you have in your book. You say overall union membership has shrunk to about a fifth of the percentage of U.S. workers it had in the mid-1950s. Only 12.3 percent of workers belong to a labor union: 7.9 million people belong to public-sector worker unions; 7.4 million belong to private-sector unions.

So now public-sector unions outnumber the people in private-sector unions, which is pretty interesting.

Mr. DRAY: That's right.

GROSS: Yeah. What do you attribute that to?

Mr. DRAY: Well, I think it's partly because of the loss of - you know, you see the loss of manufacturing jobs in America. You know, the thing about public-service workers and their jobs is that, you know, you can't export the New York subway system to China. But you can take the manufacturing jobs from upstate New York and send them there.

And so that's why - you know, partly that's why you see this decline in the private sector that you just don't see in the public sector, I think.

GROSS: What are some of the other reasons you think that private unions have shrunk so much since the 1950s?

Mr. DRAY: I think there's a lot of reasons: the decentralization of labor. You don't have these areas, cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit or Cleveland or Chicago, where you had these very tightly massed, you know, dense industrial areas where organizing, frankly, was easier because you had hundreds and hundreds of workers not only working in one place but living there and maybe going to the union hall in the evening, this kind of thing.

Secondly, of course, you have technology, which has changed the nature of work itself, you know, eliminating jobs. Globalization, of course, is a huge factor that people mention all the time, the idea that now the unions - you know, again, they don't have leverage because they're competing with workers in Indonesia or in places where non-unionized or low-paid workers are available.

So really that's kind of a big challenge for labor right now. It's trying to -you know, labor has always kind of come tripping along a little after capital, throughout American history. That's what it has to do. When the economy sort of nationalized after the Civil War, labor did too. It created national federations. Now that's kind of where it's at a little bit. It's trying to deal with the fact of these sort of multinational corporation.

And you see that a little bit already, like U.S. unions working in collaboration with unions abroad, working also with human rights groups, anti-sweat-shop leagues, that kind of thing.

GROSS: Since there are so fewer members of unions now, do you think it's breeding a resentment of workers who are unionized and who do have, you know, nice pension plans and benefits, particularly plans that were negotiated a few years ago, before the economic crisis?

Mr. DRAY: It probably does, but I think it's a shame because of course traditionally - you know, at one time I think a lot of people who weren't in unions were nonetheless grateful to them because people understood that the unions had fought for - you know, no one ever gave the unions anything. They always had to fight for everything they had attained, whether it was the eight-hour day or, you know, fire escapes on factory buildings, this kind of thing. It was always a struggle.

And so I think there was a time when non-union workers had some respect and admiration. So I'm sad to see that development.

You know, on the other hand, I think it's also duplicitous of people to, in a certain way, resent generous pension or health benefits that public service workers have attained, because a lot of these things were negotiated in good faith, and you know, a lot of people gave up short-term gains in wages or what have you because they were promised generous benefits and retirement.

So in a way, it's sad, I think, to see this kind of - whatever it is, whether it's resentment - as private-sector benefits have gone down, public-sector benefits have stayed higher, and I think it's inevitable that there would be some envy there.

GROSS: My guest is Philip Dray, author of "There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Philip Dray. He's a historian. We're talking about his book, "There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America."

One of the things that we take for granted now is, like, the eight-hour workday, 9:00 to 5:00. But 9:00 to 5:00, the eight-hour workday, that was an innovation of unions. And I'm wondering why eight hours. Like, who came up with eight hours?

Mr. DRAY: Well, of course they whittled it down. They started - in the mid-19th century, the campaign was for the 10-hour day. You know, let me go back a little and say, you know, when industrialization came to America, first of all, you know, the founders weren't quite sure they wanted it.

They had seen its effects in Europe and England, and they didn't think it had been very positive. People like Alexander Hamilton were for it. Someone like Thomas Jefferson had grave doubts about it.

When it did first come here, there was a kind of golden era, what they called the Lowell miracle, after Lowell, Massachusetts, where a lot of the early textile mills were - where the idea was that we would - America could do it better. We would have - you know, workers would be treated well, profits would be made.

But you know, the original hours, in fact, a lot of these - the workers came off the farm. And so the employers thought, well, dawn to dusk. Those are the hours of work.

It wasn't - so this was a - that was the beginning and ever since, of course, you know, throughout the 19th century, workers were trying to whittle this back, saying: We don't have time to buy the products we're making. We don't have time to even become citizens. We don't have time to read the Bible.

And so these, of course - it became a very compelling argument. And the hours argument was one that unions always did sort of fairly well with, even though it took many years to realize these things, get them in the law books. But it was an argument that was sort of hard to refute, that you couldn't keep people working, you know, 12, 13 hours a day and expect them to really function in society.

Both campaigns began in the 1840s and carried all the way through to the New Deal.

GROSS: In your book, "There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America," you reprint the lyrics to a union song, advocating for an eight-hour workday. And because I think the lyrics are kind of revealing, I just want to quote them here: We mean to make things over. We're tired of toil for naught but bare enough to live on, never an hour for thought. We want to feel the sunshine. We want to smell the flowers. We're sure that God has willed it, and we mean to have eight hours. We're summoning our forces from shipyard, shop and mill: eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.

I think that's really interesting, those last two lines: eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will. So it's a song that's asking for the freedom to have free time.

Mr. DRAY: Yes, it is, and that's a very that is, you know, was a very powerful argument, really, because it's one thing that any human being can relate to. And that's why the unions often pushed those campaigns, first of 10 hours, then for eight hours. You saw in the 1880s that even disparate groups, anarchists, more conservative, you know, business unionists, all coming together - because eight hours a day, no one really could dispute it. And so it was something that people could rally around.

GROSS: Because there are fewer people who belong to unions now, there are fewer young people who grew up in a union family. And I wonder how you think that is changing the kind of larger American feeling about the labor movement.

In other words, I think a lot of people are growing up feeling not connected to it at all.

Mr. DRAY: I think that's very true. In fact, that was why I commenced writing this book, because I'm old enough to remember when unions were, you know, written about in a way that was very respectful, and when labor leaders would come on the radio or on TV, George Meany or whoever it was, Walter Reuther, you would consider them people worth listening to.

And so I was kind of surprised in recent years that the image of the labor movement was not only sort of uninterested, but people actually felt - held a lot of negative feelings toward them. And I felt that something was being missed. The labor movement was this incredible social movement in America that involved millions of people: our grandparents and grandparents and so on.

And so to me it seemed like, you know, heartbreaking in a way that all this history would be lost.

In terms of what people feel going forward, I for one have been really cheered by the fact that there's this reaction to kind of defend collective bargaining. You know, I'm sure you're familiar too, and maybe a lot of your listeners are too, of these recent polls that have come out showing that even people who don't like labor unions are still willing to say hands off collective bargaining. People recognize it as a kind of essential right.

GROSS: So you're a writer. You're not on the staff, the full-time staff of a magazine or newspaper. So you're on your own, writing. Do you or have you ever belonged to a union?

Mr. DRAY: I have, actually. And I've had sort of, I think, this same kind of mixture of experiences that a lot of people have. I remember belonging to, like, a restaurant workers union when I was young, which was great.

They took your dues out of your paycheck. You never had to - there was no muss or fuss. They defended you if there was any problem with your boss. They would step in. They theoretically looked out for you if you wanted to hang around and be part of the pension plan, that kind of thing.

On the other hand, I was also part of a musicians union once where they came to the membership to boycott a Harlem Globetrotters game because the Harlem Globetrotters had decided they didn't need an eight-piece orchestra to play "Sweet Georgia Brown." They wanted to use a tape recording.

And of course the older members of the union were offended. They wanted to mobilize the local to get out and protest this. And I was one of the younger members. And of course to us, my friends and I, we thought, well, this is ridiculous. Why shouldn't they use a tape recording? You don't need an eight-piece orchestra to play this song.

But anyway, that was typical of a kind of - you know, unions, they get -sometimes they can be stodgy. They hate - they don't want to move ahead. So there's both good and bad. And I think probably a lot of union members in America would admit they've complained about their own union from time to time.

It just - so anyway, yeah, I mean I think, you know, that's been my experience. I think it's probably shared by a lot of people.

GROSS: Well, Philip Dray, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. DRAY: Oh, well, thanks for having me.

GROSS: Philip Dray is the author of "There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

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