I sat next to Mary’s Robinson, a retired African American, textile union organizer from Alabama. I tape recorded her story as she described union power in the past. “In 1979 we also went up to Washington D.C., to this big labor rally with people from all over the United States. And we had a ball. We took several buses from here, and the buses had microphones on them. So I went from bus to bus, leading people in singing labor songs, telling stories. I’d get one bus all laughing and militant, then I’d go to the next.
“The rally was at the Labor Department. It tried to pressure Congress to give disability for workers with lung disease. I’ll never forget it. It was so many coal miners with black lung and so many people that worked in the mills and had brown lung. I felt awed to see all those people wheeled in wheelchairs because they was cut or maimed or sick. I remember an old woman on oxygen whose face was as wrinkled as a dry field. Every year she worked etched itself in her face. She was used up, like nobody was there. She just gasped. And a man came who had lost both his legs. Some of the sick workers wore big brown buttons that said, ‘Cotton Dust Kills’ and little yellow buttons that said, ‘And It’s Killing me.’ Thousands and thousands of people had brown lung, byssinosis, at that time. We sang labor songs like. . . ‘Which side are you on?’
“. . . It was all worth it because Congress passed a bill that said that brown lung was a disabling disease, and now anybody diagnosed with brown lung can get disability. We was dead and determined to make change for the people in all the textile plants, and we did.” (Moisture of the Earth, Buss, 174-175)
At one point, labor unions had much more power than they do today. Not long after World War 11, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower said that “unions have a secure place in our industrial life. Only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions and depriving working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.” (Quoted in Winner-Take-All Politics, by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, 2010, 140) In the mid-1950s, a time of growing prosperity, unions included more than a third of private-sector employees.
One of the most important results of these numbers, according to Hacker and Pierson, was that “organized labor brought workers into sustained engagement with politics, often for the first time.” (140) Workers had a voice and clout in setting the national agenda.
Nevertheless, big businesses organized politically and fought back, and following the ascendancy of conservative politics during the last three decades, unions membership and power plummeted. Hacker and Pierson. say, “The precipitous fall in union membership occurred even though workers continued to voice strong–and after 1984, increasing–public support for unions and their goals. Working Americans lost an important form of representation even as a rising share said they wanted it.” (142) In many economic debates, unions had been the only voice for the poor and the working class. They were simply outgunned by fierce, organized money from the Right.
I thought perhaps this erosion of power was coming to an end, and we would again have a voice of workers in economic debates. Now Mary sits in front of her television set cheering on the people of Wisconsin where Governor Scot Walker tried to cripple organized labor. Instead, the people fought back, and in the dead of a Wisconsin winter, thousands rallied for weeks, actions that gave us hope. Today Walker faces a recall election.
But things are worse in Arizona. On February 1, 2012, Arizona state lawmakers launched a broad attack against public unions, including an absolute ban on state and local governments and school districts from bargaining with organizations that represent public unions. (AZ Daily Star, 2-2-12) Will we in Arizona have to fight like those in Wisconsin? How else do we get hope for change?