Author Erik Loomis talks about the history of strikes in America : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money In the wake of the "great resignation", organized labor may be having a moment in the U.S. Tens of thousands of workers have protested working conditions at companies like John Deere and Kellogg's and, in recent months, workers across the country have chosen or threatened strike action. Today on the show, author Erik Loomis shares how the history of America's unions explains today's labor movement.

The rise and fall (and rise?) of organized labor

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This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. 2021 has been an extraordinary year for the U.S. labor market - record numbers of workers quitting, millions of open jobs, wages rising across the board. In a lot of ways, workers have more power right now than they've had in decades. And they're using it. People are switching careers, getting raises and going on strike. Tens of thousands of workers in the U.S. have gone on strike in the last few months alone.


VANEK SMITH: Today on the show, we talk with Erik Loomis, author of "A History Of America In Ten Strikes." He talks about the history of unions in the U.S., where they are now and what he sees as the future of organized labor.

Erik Loomis is the author of "A History Of America In Ten Strikes." And Erik, I'd love to start out in the early days of organized labor in the U.S. This is the mid-1800s. Everything is pretty scattered, pretty disorganized. When does it become clear that unions are going to play a pretty major role in the U.S. economy?

ERIK LOOMIS: Probably the biggest moment where it seems very clear that unions are going to start playing a critical role in American life is 1886 with the eight-hour day strikes. You know, what had happened in previous decades is that you had the development of railroads. You have the development of monopoly capitalism. People like John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie - you know, these are people who transformed the American economy, and they've moved from these little businesses to these giant industries like Standard Oil and U.S. Steel. And this just gave a shock to the American worker who really believed in capitalism. And they begin to realize that they're going to have to organize in a real way in order to tame this capitalism. And they start saying, you know, if we all band together and work together as common workers to improve our conditions, we could really change things.

VANEK SMITH: What is the economy like at this time? I mean, is there a high unemployment rate? Do workers have a lot of choices?

LOOMIS: The economy in the late 19th century is extremely up and down. It's a boom and bust economy. You know, so for a lot of workers, it might be the kind of thing where you're - yeah, you're being forced to work 72-hour weeks, and then the work just disappears and you're unemployed for four months - right? - and you have nothing. And so there's not that kind of consistency that, you know, could really lead to a stable life.

VANEK SMITH: So you've got a lot of people who don't have a lot to lose and they're starting to radicalize. What is the sort of turning point moment that you see?

LOOMIS: That idea of having an eight-hour day, right? There's this slogan - eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what you will. That is a very appealing slogan to people, right? It's taking back control over your life.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours...

LOOMIS: And so in 1886, there are these big strikes going on in April and into May that are eight-hour day strikes. And this, you know, basically galvanizes working-class people across the country.

VANEK SMITH: Are factories having trouble getting workers at that point or...

LOOMIS: Oh, yeah. I mean, the factories are shut down. And employers begin to band together to not allow any unions at all into their factories. You have, like, a massive repression.

VANEK SMITH: So this is like a major power struggle.

LOOMIS: It is. It's that you have a new labor movement develop called the American Federation of Labor. And that is a coalition of, like, the big unions that are sort of seen as respectable unions that are skilled workers, carpenters, railroad brotherhoods and these kind of respectable unions.

VANEK SMITH: Like an old-fashioned guild almost kind of...



LOOMIS: They're not super political. They're not going to overthrow capitalism.

VANEK SMITH: And they have more power. I mean, those workers have more leverage.

LOOMIS: They do. And that becomes the core of a now more established labor movement. Part of that is they're saying, like, we're not going to be radical, so you should deal with us. So that moves that conversation forward. That's when you begin to have a more established centralized labor movement in this country. But the problem is, is because it's about skilled labor, those masses that are out there working in those factory floors - Black workers, Asian workers, women, children, a lot of the new immigrants from Eastern Europe - they're not welcome. And so you have this established labor movement, but you have millions of workers unorganized. The labor movement doesn't even want...

VANEK SMITH: The most vulnerable...


VANEK SMITH: ...In a lot of ways. The most vulnerable workers are getting no protection. Now, I was wondering if there's, like - if there's a moment where labor's at its most powerful.

LOOMIS: Labor's at its most powerful in this nation basically between World War II and 1973. You have millions of workers in 1934 striking. And Franklin Delano Roosevelt's now president. And then in 1938 is the Fair Labor Standards Act, which places into law a whole bunch of labor's longtime demands, such as time and a half for overtime, the 40-hour workweek, the eight-hour day, the minimum wage, right? And so it's in those years that the standards of American work get placed into law. You get out of World War II, the economy booms. Unions are now part of American life. So you really - by the early '70s, it looks like American labor unions are going to be continually a powerful force in America for the foreseeable future. But it doesn't work out that way.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, there is a decisive moment that you talk about in the book that is very famous, very well-known, and it is - has to do with President Ronald Reagan and air traffic controllers.

LOOMIS: So one of the most famous moments in American labor history and the greatest disaster in the history of American labor was in 1981.

VANEK SMITH: The greatest disaster.

LOOMIS: I would say, absolutely the greatest disaster in the history of American labor. Yeah. But in 1981, the air traffic controllers, who were a very militant union - they go on strike. And Reagan was so outraged by the illegal action that, as he said, you know, if you don't return to work in three days, I'm going to fire all of you. And he does.


RONALD REAGAN: It is for this reason that I must tell those who fail to report for duty this morning, they are in violation of the law. And if they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.

LOOMIS: And so Reagan says, you're fired, but rather than lead to a backlash, it actually helped Reagan's approval ratings.

VANEK SMITH: Whoa. Do you think - what? Why?

LOOMIS: So remember that in the '70s, the economy for the private sector is really tanking, right? You have the depression or the...

VANEK SMITH: Gas crisis.

LOOMIS: ...Inflation - all of these things are happening. And so - and factories are closing and moving overseas. And so you have a scenario here where in the public sector, government workers are making, like, a lot of money now. They have been spending a decade getting better and better and better and better contracts. And private sector workers have spent the decades seeing a lower standard of living, the busting of their unions. And so it feels like, to a lot of the American working class, that these government employees are being greedy and that they are offered this nice contract and they're not taking it. And so tens of thousands of people apply to replace those air traffic controllers. So basically, workers become very scared of going on strike. And union numbers just plummet in the years after. The total union membership in this country is pretty small now, right? It's 10% of overall workers, 6% of the private sector. That's, you know...

VANEK SMITH: What was it at its peak?

LOOMIS: So it's close to half of private sector workers.

VANEK SMITH: What about, like, the Google union? I know, like, workers at Google formed a union kind of to protect temp workers, I believe.

LOOMIS: So there's been - you know, Google is a great example of this. There's been a lot of kind of alternative labor organizations that have developed, right? There's different forms of collectives that have formed. And, you know, people are being pretty creative right now, realizing that they're probably never going to get a union contract. But nonetheless, they can have a voice on the job. And I think it's really - it's very promising, right, that - but it becomes a way for workers to come together and collectively use power to lobby, to have protest, to speak, try to speak to administration, these sorts of things that are other kinds of expressions of worker power. And I think that's a lot of what you're seeing right now. You know, there's a lot of creative thinkers around this right now.


VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Julia Ritchey with help from Isaac Rodrigues. It was fact-checked by Taylor Washington. Viet Le is our senior producer. Kate Concannon edits the show, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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