Why Those Who Care For Justice, Must Care About Unions

This is a guest post from Paul Adler. Paul graduated Brandeis in ’04 and is now a PhD student at Georgetown studying history. He’s a really smart and friendly guy.

First of all, thank you to Sahar for inviting me to comment here, a real honor.

The above is a photo from the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 – the event which brought us that great American oration, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” Images such as this have become iconic representations not only of the civil rights movement, but of the American story of progress. Yet, if you look carefully at the signs, you will notice a crucial aspect to this story that does not appear in popular remembrances. Notice how a number of them start with “UAW Says” or “IUE Says”? Those are union signs, held most likely by union members. It was organized labor that paid for many of the key logistics for that day, including the United Auto Workers’ donation of $19,000 for the sound system. The microphones that gave the world a dream, came union made.

Organized labor, even in the much weakened form it appears in today, is a vast institution with millions of members. Labor is a complex institution, one which must both represent its members and all the baggage they bring from living in a society plagued with inequities of all sorts, while also fighting to transform that world. Unions can be overly bureaucratic, unresponsive to their members, concerned with parochial deals for their members over the common good and many other institutional vices. Furthermore, labor has seen its fair share of corruption and unions have helped to continue racial and gender disparities.

Yet, for all its many faults, I am hard pressed to think of an institution that has done more to uplift more types of people in the U.S., both socially and economically, than unions. Labor has been a force seeking to remake American society by wiping out inequalities. Union struggles helped build support for so many of the social programs we take for granted, from unemployment insurance to Medicare. The battles waged by unions made jobs (such as working in a factory), which had previously been dangerous, underpaid, and lacking respect in society into the foundations of economically secure families and a society in which, at the height of union power, inequality began to shrink. To be less abstract, as the slogan goes, unions gave us the weekend.

The example of the March on Washington points to something else. Labor, at its best, has been a force for social good far beyond wages and benefits. On the more progressive and often radical end of labor, union members and leaders have seen their struggle as one for liberation from all manner of social injustices. Unions played a major role not just in the March in 1963, but throughout the civil rights struggle providing finance and bodies. This included work by black trade unionists, such as A. Philip Randolph, a great civil rights hero (the March on Washington was his idea), and also a giant among labor organizers. Labor provided an important home for women’s struggles by empowering female workers through strikes and other activities and by providing an institutional base for the feminist movement in the decades between the gaining of suffrage and the 1960s movement. Before the emergence of the environmental movement in the U.S. in the late 1960s, unions weighed in to help pass legislation such as the Clean Air Act. Union radicals, such as those in the IWW, have contributed vitally to political democracy as well. In fact, one of the most First Amendment cases in U.S. history, Whitney vs. California, concerned Anita Whitney, a member of the radical Industrial Workers of the World, who was arrested under a state law for making pro-labor speeches. While her conviction was upheld, Justice Louis Brandeis’ concurring opinion articulated a defense of free speech that has become a standard-bearer in these debates.

Today, organized labor is facing an existential threat in the U.S., as conservative move from chipping away at its power to attempting to eliminate unions entirely. I believe this is a fight that all those who care about justice must embrace. They may not be perfect, but without them, in so many ways, we will be a poorer society and nation.