Of all the slogans Northland has ever popularized, the one which has gone the farthest is “Unions: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend”. As far as we know, it originated with a local labor council on the West Coast, but we borrowed it and put it (and its sister, “The Labor Movement: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend”) on bumper stickers, mugs, t-shirts, buttons, and many other surfaces.
Many people, seeing that, have suggested other things that unions have brought us. The carpenters commissioned a whole series of bumper stickers highlighting these benefits. Now we’ve put together a poster which tries to consolidate some of the victories, past and pending:
To me, though, the most important part of this poster is the much-quoted observation from Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.” None of the gains highlighted on this poster — unemployment insurance, overtime pay, workers’ compensation insurance, farm labor rights — came easily. Each of them required years and years of struggle to bring them from the margins of political debate into the mainstream. Asking nicely didn’t quite do the trick! Lawsuits, strikes, small-scale protests, massive marches, lectures and speeches, firings, pamphlets, worker defense committees, endless meetings, and many other methods had to be used to build up enough power to win the concessions. And, of course, at the bottom of everything is organizing.
We recently attended a conference for APWU organizers, designed to help people think outside of the box when it comes to building unions and advancing new demands. It must have been a great conference, because even on the last full day, the workshops were well-attended. (From our position as vendors, we can tell how things are going: on the first day, usually everyone goes to the scheduled events. By the last day, we usually have lots of shoppers during the break-out sessions!)
Everyone knows that there is a tendency within the labor movement towards accommodation with management, and a desire to avoid confrontation. I once studied an oral history interview with a long-time business agent of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers’ Union in Minneapolis. He began his career in the late 1930s with a spirited and unprecedented strike of the city’s restaurants to gain recognition for the union. The rest of his career gradually changed his perspective. As business agent, he grew to have more contact with the hotel and restaurant owners than with the ever-changing ranks of his own membership. Unwittingly, as he told his story, he revealed his shifting loyalties — until, when the membership in his local demanded a second strike in 1953, he told the hotel owners, “We’ll take the strike-happiness out of ‘em, and then we can talk.” Not surprisingly, under those circumstances, the strike petered out after a month and the resulting contract fell far short of the workers’ wishes. It’s a microcosm example of what can happen on the international level as well.
Stories like these are dispiriting, and point to the need for constant grassroots refreshment — such as we saw at the APWU conference for organizers. (I’m happy to say that the hotel and restaurant workers in Minneapolis came roaring back in the early 1980s, after that business agent — and his son! — had served out their terms.) Cooperation with management has definite limits, and ignores Frederick Douglass’s accurate advice. When you look at the accomplishments of the labor movement which we take for granted today, and how making demands of power has paid off, you can feel a bit more hopeful about seemingly impossible tasks — such as unionizing Walmart. (Remember, Henry Ford flirted with Fascism, and maintained that there would never be a union at his company, either!)
So, organizing! The work that brought you the unions!