Is “Solidarity” Making a Comeback? Thoughts on the Return of a Long Neglected Concept
( Dedicated to the Memory of Rich Klimmer, AFT organizer, Labor Historian and Friend)
Dr Mark Naison
When the union's inspiration through the workers' blood shall run
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one
But the union makes us strong
Solidarity forever, Solidarity forever
Solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong!
“Solidarity Forever” by Ralph Chapin
The success of the Wisconsin movement to protect collective bargaining rights of government workers, and of similar movements around the country, depends on the revival of a concept that has been out of favor in the United States for many years- the concept of “Solidarity” Republican lawmakers like Scott Walker were clearly expecting that this concept was dormant when they decided to attack bargaining rights of public employees. They were gambling that workers in the private sector who had lower wages, less generous benefits, and less job security than government workers would want to see them cut down to size in a Recession. They were expecting that envy, rather than Solidarity, would govern the attitudes of people hit hard by the Recession. Their experience, and their ideology, suggested that working class Americans would be more interested in lowering their own tax rates then protecting the bargaining rights of their unionized brothers and sisters.
But the response of to the Wisconsin bill, and to similar bills in Ohio and Indiana, seems to have caught Republican lawmakers by surprise. Firefighters and police officers, both exempt from the elimination of bargaining rights the Walker Bill, both turned out in force to support the protests as the Wisconsin Capital. So did high schools students, who came to support their teachers, and University students, who feared the Governors next step would be steep tuition rises and the elimination of bargaining rights for graduate students. When you couple this local response with the support of organized labor nationally, the result was the largest labor protest in a state in recent American history, with 70,000 people turning out the first weekend of the demonstration.
And when you look at the growing size of protests at the Ohio State capital, where private sectors unions have joined public sector unions in denouncing a similar bill to the Wisconsin one, you have to ask “What is going on? Why are labor unions, which have been on the defensive for the last thirty years, able to mount this kind of movement? Why is Solidarity, out of favor for many years, suddenly back in fashion?”
To understand this, it helps to look back at American History. For the last one hundred years, Solidarity has been more notable in its absence than its presence in the American working class. For the first thirty years of the 20th Century, corporations were able to keep the largest and most fast growing industries in the country- steel, automobile, electronics, ground transportation- almost entirely union free by playing off workers against one another by race, religion, and national origin and convincing the majority of the white protestant population in the nation that organized labor was a foreign implant.
However, all that changed during the Great Depression. When banks failed and the economy imploded, leaving nearly a third of the labor force unemployed by 1933, and another third working part time, working class Americans, seeing that that hardship hit people of all racial and religious backgrounds, and in every region of the country, began to listen to labor organizers, and representatives of radical parties, who argued that individual effort could no longer assure prosperity and that workers could only improve their lives by organizing together. These organizers made the argument that ALL workers would benefit when employed workers were able to form strong unions and they urged unemployed people to support unionization drives in major industries, rather than be recruited by employers to be strike breakers and anti-union vigilantes.
In the two most successful strikes of the Depression Era, the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934, which led to the unionization of a sizable share of overland truck traffic, and the Flint Sit down strikes of `1936-37 which led to the unionization of General Motors and US Steel, both of which involved pitched battles between strikers, police and Citizens Committees organized by employers, the unemployed either remained neutral or took the side of the strikers. As a result, employers not only were unable to recruit strikebreakers, they were unable, even with the police on their side, to control the streets surrounding the plants and warehouses that were on strike assuring that the protests went on for weeks, and months, until the employers finally agreed to union recognition. There were other conditions that led to the success of these strikes, such as the refusal of the Minnesota and Michigan governors to us the National Guard to remove workers from factories and warehouses, but the support of the unemployed who had nothing to gain, in the short run, from the success of these movements, was absolutely critical. Somehow, a critical mass of the unemployed, along with workers outside the affected industries, had come to believe in all workers would benefit when some workers achieved union recognition. They had become caught up in “union fever” the idea that only by organizing unions could workers attain dignity and respect as well as a decent standard of living and they fought side by side in the streets with striking workers until these communal battles were won.
Were they justified in this belief, or had they just succumbed to the UnAmerican propaganda of Communists and Socialists? Fast forward to the 1950’s. Thirty five percent of the American labor force is unionized, including most of those working in steel, auto, electronics and transportation. The people who built these unions not only had the highest standard of living in the world, they lived in one of the most equal advanced nations on the planet, where the top one percent of the population controlled 9 percent of national income, as opposed to 23 percent today. In New York City, where unions were particularly powerful, you had an amazing network of public universities, which charged no tuition, public hospitals, schools with free after school centers and great music and sports programs, and museums and zoos which charged no admission. The evidence is incontrovertible- the rise of organized labor, from the mid 1930’s to the mid 1950’s, coincided with a significant improvement in the standard of living of all American workers, whether or not they were in unions.
Most Americans do not know this. Except among people in union education departments and those who teach labor history in universities, the role of labor unions in spreading the benefits of prosperity in the years following the Depression is neither known, nor acknowledged. However, the current economic crisis, with its eerie parallels to the Great Depression, is making many working class Americans wonder whether their dreams of individual prosperity and security are still possible in a society where the housing market, banking system, and now local governments are in such trouble. Some may be blaming their plight on the “fat contracts” and “bloated pensions” of government workers, but others are wondering what the role of the banks and large corporations have been in putting them in such a predicament, and how they can fight back
It is in this context that the Wisconsin protests put forward a message that, to everyone’s surprise, touches a chord. Maybe working Americans have had enough of blaming unions and government for what has happened to them. Maybe they are starting to think that the calls for “sacrifice” that politicians of both parties are making should be directed toward the very wealthy, who are the only people who have not been hurt during the crisis. And maybe they are starting to hear a message that says that working Americans had better overcome their differences and start to fight for their rights or their hopes for a life of comfort and security will be gone forever.
Solidarity, here in America, in 2011? Look around you, in a million years, would you have expected there to be 70,000 people massed outside the Wisconsin State Capitol demanding protection of collective bargaining rights for government workers?. Why, the very thought is as improbable as Black students sitting in at lunch counters in 35 cities throughout the South.
History can move in mysterious ways.
And Solidarity may be making a comeback.
February 22, 2011