As someone who studies late-nineteenth century American literature and the ways it interacts with political, social, and economic conditions of the day, I have a hard time understanding opposition to unions. I try, I do, and I realize that many people see unions as protecting mediocrity and closing ranks around incompetence. I also understand that, as with any institutionalized power structure, some people abuse the power the union provides them with. And the slow process of dealing with teachers in New York City’s reassignment centers makes it clear that union bureaucracy can be crippling.
But while we might question the efficacy and priorities of some unions, it’s hard to take issue with the concept itself. Hard, that is, if you enjoy your 40-hour, 5-day work week, paid overtime, workman’s compensation, and protection from being laid off at whim with no warning, severance pay, or justification. I’ll leave the history of labor in the twentieth century to someone else, but suffice it to say that working conditions at the end of the nineteenth were bleak. Reading account after account of horrific workplace accidents, factory shutdowns that left employees and their children dying of starvation or cold, young children sent to work to support their families, strikes broken by violence and intimidation, and parents working ten hours, six days a week for just a few dollars each week gives you a pretty good sense of what working conditions might be like without unions (and what working conditions are still like in many places around the world). And this same period saw extensive wealth-building among the nation’s richest citizens (in 1890, one percent of the citizens held seven-eighths of the wealth), growth and consolidation of corporations and monopolies, and the expansion of industrial capitalism, none of which did anything to improve working conditions for the seven-eighths of the population that held one-eighth of the wealth.
So when I hear the governor of Wisconsin threatening to call in the Wisconsin National Guard to quell protestors, it’s hard not to think about the Pullman Strike or even the Haymarket Riot. I get the sense that a lot of folks—those who aren’t steeped in this stuff every day—don’t realize the extent of the changes unions brought to American labor conditions. (Of course, there are also plenty of people who do, and the protestors in Wisconsin are getting support from a number of unexpected places.)