FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The Future of Unions in the Wake of Janus

The U.S. Supreme Court has just dealt unions a bruising blow. In a 5-4 vote, the court ruled that public sector employees who benefit from unions’ collective bargaining services will no longer have to pay for them.

At least initially, this is expected to result in a steep drop in union resources and bargaining capacity, which will likely reduce employee pay. One Illinois university study, for example, predicts that public school teacher salaries in that state will drop by an average of 5.4 percent.

But over the course of its turbulent history, the American labor movement has survived much worse. And it will find a way to get back on its feet.

One of my ancestors was in the center of the drama during one of labor’s most roiling eras. Albert G. Denny, my great-grandmother’s brother, started out as a child laborer in a glass factory. He eventually became the national organizer for the Knights of Labor, the leading voice for U.S. workers in the 1880s.

Compared to the challenges Albert faced in the 19th century, the new threat against organized labor still seems bad — but not as bad.

Teachers in several states have already been striking over low pay and school underfunding. In my great-uncle’s day, that could get you shot.

As a young glass blower in Pittsburgh in 1877, Albert witnessed one of the most violent attacks on labor in our nation’s history. When railroad workers there joined a nationwide strike, the governor sent in militia who opened fire on the workers, killing 20. After more than a month of conflict, federal troops marched in and crushed the strike.

Within a few years of this tragedy, the labor movement began to rebound. Albert became secretary of a glassworkers union that effectively negotiated over wages, apprenticeships, and other labor conditions. Later he became the lead organizer for the Knights of Labor, which grew rapidly to represent 20 percent of all U.S. workers by 1886.

The anti-union violence, however, didn’t end.

I have a copy of a telegram Albert sent the head of the Knights of Labor after learning that railroad baron Jay Gould’s goons had shot into a crowd of strikers in East St. Louis, killing six. “You should have Gould arrested and tried for accessory to murder,” Albert wrote.

Instead, the strike failed, Gould got richer, and the Knights of Labor began to implode. Membership plummeted from 800,000 in 1886 to 100,000 in 1890 — an even faster nosedive than the modern labor movement’s decline, from 17.7 million in 1983 to 14.8 million in 2017.

But out of the Knights’ ashes, new forms of organizing took shape. By the 1930s, the movement was powerful enough to push President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to enact landmark labor legislation that workers still benefit from today, including the minimum wage and the 40-hour week.

Once again, American workers will need to find new ways to build power against big money interests. Fortunately, this is already beginning.

In anticipation of the Supreme Court ruling, public sector unions have been much more proactively reaching out to their members, hearing about their needs and concerns, and broadening the scope of their efforts beyond pay and benefits to immigrant rights, racial justice, and other social issues.

Traditionally non-unionized workers are also making some progress. Advocates for restaurant servers, for example, just won a Washington, D.C. ballot vote to eliminate the subminimum wage for tipped workers.

My great-uncle Albert Denny’s union hall is still standing in Pittsburgh’s South Side neighborhood, but it’s a deli/whiskey bar now. Some things change. But the need for working people to be able to come together to negotiate over conditions that affect their lives will not.

More articles by:

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
July 19, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
The Blob Fought the Squad, and the Squad Won
Miguel A. Cruz-Díaz
It Was Never Just About the Chat: Ruminations on a Puerto Rican Revolution.
Anthony DiMaggio
System Capture 2020: The Role of the Upper-Class in Shaping Democratic Primary Politics
Andrew Levine
South Carolina Speaks for Whom?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Big Man, Pig Man
Bruce E. Levine
The Groundbreaking Public Health Study That Should Change U.S. Society—But Won’t
Evaggelos Vallianatos
How the Trump Administration is Eviscerating the Federal Government
Pete Dolack
All Seemed Possible When the Sandinistas Took Power 40 years Ago
Ramzy Baroud
Who Killed Oscar and Valeria: The Inconvenient History of the Refugee Crisis
Ron Jacobs
Dancing with Dr. Benway
Joseph Natoli
Gaming the Climate
Marshall Auerback
The Numbers are In, and Trump’s Tax Cuts are a Bust
Louisa Willcox
Wild Thoughts About the Wild Gallatin
Kenn Orphan
Stranger Things, Stranger Times
Mike Garrity
Environmentalists and Wilderness are Not the Timber Industry’s Big Problem
Helen Yaffe
Cuban Workers Celebrate Salary Rise From New Economic Measures
Brian Cloughley
What You Don’t Want to be in Trump’s America
David Underhill
The Inequality of Equal Pay
David Macaray
Adventures in Script-Writing
David Rosen
Say Goodbye to MAD, But Remember the Fight for Free Expression
Nick Pemberton
This Is Heaven!: A Journey to the Pearly Gates with Chuck Mertz
Dan Bacher
Chevron’s Oil Spill Endangers Kern County
J.P. Linstroth
A Racist President and Racial Trauma
Binoy Kampmark
Spying on Julian Assange
Rose Ramirez – Dedrick Asante-Mohammad
A Trump Plan to Throw 50,000 Kids Out of Their Schools
David Bravo
Precinct or Neighborhood? How Barcelona Keeps Rolling Out the Red Carpet for Global Capital
Ralph Nader
Will Any Disgusted Republicans Challenge Trump in the Primaries?
Dave Lindorff
The BS about Medicare-for-All Has to Stop!
Arnold August
Why the Canadian Government is Bullying Venezuela
Tom Clifford
China and the Swine Flu Outbreak
Missy Comley Beattie
Highest Anxiety
Jill Richardson
Weapons of the Weak
Peter Certo
Washington vs. The Squad
Peter Bolton
Trump’s Own Background Reveals the True Motivation Behind Racist Tweets: Pure White Supremacy
Colin Todhunter
From Mad Cow Disease to Agrochemicals: Time to Put Public Need Ahead of Private Greed
Nozomi Hayase
In Crisis of Democracy, We All Must Become Julian Assange
Wim Laven
The Immoral Silence to the Destructive Xenophobia of “Just Leave”
Cecily Myart-Cruz
McDonald’s: Stop Exploiting Our Schools
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Our Veggie Gardens Won’t Feed us in a Real Crisis
CounterPunch News Service
A Homeless Rebellion – Mission Statement/Press Release
Louis Proyect
Parallel Lives: Cheney and Ailes
David Yearsley
Big in the Bungalow of Believers
Ellen Taylor
The Northern Spotted Owls’ Tree-Sit
July 18, 2019
Timothy M. Gill
Bernie Sanders, Anti-Imperialism and Venezuela
W. T. Whitney
Cuba and a New Generation of Leaders Respond to U.S. Anti-People War
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail