|Greater Green Bay Labor Council
|Can labor reverse a 25-year decline begun on Aug. 3,1981?
by Ken Germanson, President, Wisconsin Labor History Society
Twenty-five years ago last summer, President Ronald Reagan told striking members of the Professional Air Traffic
Controllers, Organization (PATCO) they had 48 hours to return to work or be replaced. Such strikebreaking by the
Federal government was unprecedented in that era. Many think it signald the beginning of labor's awful free-fall into
Labor union membership plummeted in all but the public sector after PATCO's seemingly rock-solid unity fell to defeat.
Jobs in basic industry were exported; entire international unions became so bereft of members they were forced to
merge. Industrial unions faced devastation, and their political clout which once roared with power reduced to a
whisper, and too often sounded like a whine.
Economically, America's working families that year began a descent into uncertainty, as well as less and less real
income. With unions growing weaker, there was no force left to protect workers and their families.
Real earnings waned in this era, forcing mothers and fathers to work, often with additional side jobs. Today, few
workers' paychecks support a family. Health insurance protection has weakened for more and more workers. Pension
plans have yielded to the whimsy of 401 (k) plans that mainly enrich stockbrokers.
Business praised Reagan's action and followed suit, challenging unions, hiring strikebreakers, and refusing to
recognize unions without a legal fight. The Reagan administration, the First Bush and later George W, appointed only
pro-business figures to Federal courts and to key boards, like the National Labor Relations Board, the EPA and
OSHA. One by one, workers' protections were lost by one-sided rulings.
The industrial climate changed radically. So-called "free trade" exported jobs overseas or south of the border.
Milwaukee's great industrial sites began to turn into parking lots, condos and shopping malls. Gone are the
union-protected jobs paying living wages today in this once-proud industrial city (previously called the "machine shop
of the world").
In 1994, the Democrats lost control of Congress; labor's protections eroded further. President Clinton's "middle-road"
stance did not stem the anti-union tide or stay an unfriendly Congress fueled by rightwing desires and Newt Gingrich's
nasty "Contract with America." Clinton's clout was nearly dead after Republicans and the press jumped upon his
personal behavior with a shameful impeachment campaign.
The sum of all this is: workers have suffered in the last 25 years! And, our unions became so weakened that they were
literally powerless to stop the suffering!
Sadly, workers have ushered in their own economic downfall, duped by Republican chatter that "family values," being
"strong on defense" and "cutting your taxes" was in their best interest. Many failed to see that "family values" meant
less and less access to health insurance and better futures. They failed to see that "being strong on defense" meant
fattening the military with unneeded weapons; or that the only ones enjoying "tax cuts" were the wealthiest of the
So workers forget their economic interests and elected people who made their lives tougher. You can hardly blame
them, with the steady drumbeat of shameful rightwing rhetoric on talk radio, Fox News, and so on.
Reagan's PATCO decision began a 25-year era when labor became less and less able to protect the interests of
America's working families. Stronger union solidarity in 1981 with PATCO strikers, honoring picket lines (in spite of
laws) and perhaps even general strikes might have stemmed the anti-labor tide.
But now, what to do? How can we turn the country's direction from hell-bent corporate domination toward a socially just
and economically fair society?
Perhaps all is not lost. Labor-supported candidates won in 2006 mid-term elections, regaining control of Congress.
Today's labor leaders by and large are more progressive, have become less timid and are more determined than
before. Unions have fewer resources and far fewer members, but the resolve seems stronger.
And therein lies our hope as we enter 2007.
- Ken Germanson, President,
Wisconsin Labor History Society