Unions Face Major Turning Point Organized labor has a long, storied history in the United States. Author Philip Dray talks to host Guy Raz about the evolution of the American union and the significance of the recent events in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker seeks to fundamentally change the way public sector unions operate.
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Unions Face Major Turning Point

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Unions Face Major Turning Point

Unions Face Major Turning Point

Unions Face Major Turning Point

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Organized labor has a long, storied history in the United States. Author Philip Dray talks to host Guy Raz about the evolution of the American union and the significance of the recent events in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker seeks to fundamentally change the way public sector unions operate.

(Soundbite of protesters)

GUY RAZ, host:

The voices of pro-union activists in Wisconsin's capital, Madison, this week. The legislature there is a step closer to approving a bill that could end the right of public sector unions to bargain collectively.

And Governor Scott Walker, a Republican who faces a $3.6 billion budget shortfall over the next two years, insists that the unions are being greedy.

Governor SCOTT WALKER: They know the power of collective bargaining forces local governments not to be able to make those sorts of reasonable decisions to protect jobs.

RAZ: A similar crisis has hit Ohio. And in New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie has also gone after public sector unions, portraying them as a drain on the state coffers.

So is this a turning point in the long and contentious battle between unions and cost-cutters? I asked Philip Dray that question. He wrote a book on the history of organized labor in America. And he says the story begins in the early days of the Industrial Revolution with textile workers, namely women, in the mills of New England.

Mr. PHILIP DRAY (Author, "There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America"): They set up a system that was very paternalistic, of boarding houses with kind of den mothers to look after these young women. But within a generation, these same women began to tire of the, you know, 12- and 14-hour days, the low pay, the dust flying in the air. They didn't have the term "strike" then, but they would - what they called turn out. They would just walk out of the factory.

And so they weren't organized into unions per se, but it was really this kind of organic process. And I think you see that all over the world, really. Whenever workers are put upon too much, they begin to organize collectively.

RAZ: And for decades - certainly well into the 20th century, in many states it was not - you weren't protected. You didn't necessarily have the right to organize.

Mr. DRAY: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting, in a way, because until 1842, unions were actually criminal. They were considered a criminal conspiracy. And so of course, that greatly inhibited organizing. It wasn't until a court case in Massachusetts - Commonwealth v. Hunt - that unions were more or less granted the same rights as commercial enterprises to organize.

But you know, most of the time, labor has been fighting for its life. The military has been used against it; police; spies; the courts, definitely. And now you see, of course, you know, in Wisconsin, this kind of legislative subterfuge. So it's always been one thing or another. And labor has -basically, everything its won it's had to really, you know, gain for itself.

RAZ: Governor Walker in Wisconsin, and Governor Christie in New Jersey, have talked about these unfunded pension obligations to public employees, in some cases exceeding hundreds of millions of dollars. And the argument they make is that it's unfair - that people in the private sector are not expecting lifetime pensions, and it's got to change in the public sector as well. That argument seems to be resonating with a lot of people.

Mr. DRAY: Yeah. No, I can understand why it does. Of course in a certain way, it's a little duplicitous because bear in mind that a lot of these agreements were hammered out years ago. And the idea being that, say, in the late 1970s or whenever, you went to a teachers union and said, well, if you all - you know, the state or whoever would say, well, we understand you're working for a sort of modest wage and under harsh conditions now, but we'll promise you something down the road.

And of course, it was a - sort of a bargaining chip. And then to come along 30 or 40 years later and say, whoa, you're greedy to demand that, in a way is not really fair ball. I mean, those were the terms of negotiation. That was kind of the trade-off.

RAZ: Are you surprised that some of these governors and politicians had been successful at kind of turning public sector employees who are part of unions into kind of an enemy? I saw a reference to the new welfare queens, which of course, was a term that was used in the 1980s.

Mr. DRAY: I saw another term the other day: Cadillac benefits - which, of course, invokes President Reagan's thing about the welfare queens driving Cadillacs. In one way, of course, I'm not surprised. There's always, I think, a sense that people are suspicious of some sort of organization or collective that has secured something that other people don't have, and seem to be operating on their, you know, their own agenda for their own good, etc.

RAZ: And do you think what is happening now, in places like Wisconsin and Ohio, is kind of the death knell for these public sector unions?

Mr. DRAY: I guess, in a way, the jury is still out on that a little bit. I mean, in one way, I would be inclined to say that if this legislation had just breezed through. But I think everyone has been very heartened by the response. You know, I think a lot of union activists and members around the country are probably cheered by it.

RAZ: That's Philip Dray. He's the author of the book, "There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America." Philip Dray, thank you.

Mr. DRAY: Thanks so much for having me.

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