Commentary Magazine

Labor's Time of Troubles:
The Failure of Bread-and-Butter Unionism

Organized labor in the United States is in serious difficulties today—and it may prove to be the healthiest thing that has happened to it in the last fifteen years. Born of insecurity and bred in conflict, American unions have traditionally tended to lose their sense of mission in times of peace and prosperity. Now that they are under attack in Congress, in the courts, at the bargaining table, and on the picket line, the unions have an opportunity to re-forge their bonds with their members by dedicating themselves anew to the proposition that unionism is a cause, rather than a business.

Indeed, if some of the nation’s richest and most powerful unions are not to find themselves relegated to an increasingly inferior role in collective bargaining, and to suffer an eventual drastic decline in their power and prestige, they must overcome the present estrangement and apathy of their own members. For employers in mass-production industries, convinced that they have been “easy marks” for labor demands since the dawn of the New Deal, have resolved to put an end to the long series of union gains. The employers have clearly determined to make their stand at this time, no matter what the cost in strikes or future ill-will may be. The year ahead should thus provide significant clues as to the ultimate outcome of this clash between Big Labor and Big Industry.

In the postwar decade, most unions recorded impressive economic advances for their members. Industrial wages rose more quickly than living costs, and often outstripped gains in productivity as well. Fringe benefits multiplied, as paid vacations, holidays, and similar concessions became almost as common for hourly-rated workers as for those with salaried jobs. Supplemental unemployment benefit plans helped offset the inadequacy of state job-insurance systems. Employer-financed pension and welfare programs mushroomed; their reserves are now a major institutional pillar of the investment market.

As the functions and responsibilities of the unions became more complex over the years, many of them became as bureaucratic in their internal structure as the corporations with which they dealt. They moved into the Big Organization class, with their leaders negotiating on equal terms with the heads of billion-dollar companies and signing agreements that fixed labor standards for hundreds of thousands of workers. The typical president of a large union had to become expert in law, industrial technology, politics, finance, foreign trade, public relations, and personnel administration. The union leader’s salary, which had once been kept to something like 10 or 15 per cent above the highest journeyman’s wage, rose to $30,000 a year or more. The president was inclined to regard his job as a lifetime career, and actively discouraged potential rivals—sometimes by preferring charges of disloyalty or by exiling them to some “Siberia” within the union. Staff jobs were entrusted to Organization Men, loyal to the established leaders. Unions that had once used shipping crates for office furniture now built massive headquarters that resembled the embassies of great powers. At these new buildings, the welcome mat was seldom out for the rank and file union member who wanted to put his feet up on the president’s desk—or even on the assistant secretary-treasurer’s.

At the same time, the union came to depend more and more on the employer to perform functions that had once brought the union into closest association with its members. Under union shop contracts, the employer in effect recruited new members for the union, as part of the process of hiring new employees. Under the check-off provisions of the same contract, he collected union dues as well. “Organizing the unorganized” ceased to be a slogan of any vitality outside such sparsely unionized fields as the textile and retail trades; new plants in the mass industries were organized largely through the automatic extension of company-wide contracts to new branches of such giants as General Motors or United States Steel.



This decline in organizing vigor was one of the principal factors leading to the merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1955. The chief selling point for unity in both camps was the fact that it made possible the effective establishment of the “no-raiding” principle, under which no AFL-CIO union could organize workers covered by a contract or bargaining certification held by another federation affiliate. True, this was a bar to inter-union piracy; but it also prevented the secession of workers who were fed up with being misrepresented by one union and wanted to escape into another. For unions wishing to be left undisturbed in possession of the workers who “belonged” to them, the no-raiding agreement was a more comfortable arrangement than having to keep persuading the workers that they were, indeed, well represented.

The no-raiding agreement was the expression of a “vested interest” conception of unionism which was difficult to square with the idea embodied in the Wagner Act, that workers were entitled to be represented by unions of their own choosing and to reconsider their choice at reasonable intervals. The development of the notion of union members as a kind of “property” was part of the long-term institutionalization of unions; it had overtones decidedly inimical to the flourishing of genuine industrial democracy.

In an article for COMMENTARY written three years before the establishment of the McClellan Committee,1 I called attention to the entry of the gangster and the “influence peddler” into the labor-management field; their real significance, I noted, lay not so much in their dishonesty as in the fact that they were part of a larger trend toward anti-social forms of employer-union collaboration. A “sell-out” contract negotiated by a Johnny Dio or a Tony (Ducks) Corallo is a betrayal of the workers involved; it enables the employer to short-change his employees, with part of what he saves by the “sell-out” contract being passed on to a hoodlum union in the form of dues, “welfare contributions,” or an undisguised bribe. But the cost of these unsavory practices of illegitimate unionism to the public is infinitesimal as compared with that involved in the “harmonious” agreements which bona fide unions sometimes conclude with employers, whereby they get a whopping wage increase—and the manufacturer of an essential product extorts an even greater price increase.



Labor’s difficulties today are primarily a result of three factors: the revelations of the McClellan Committee, which have led to a demand for union regulation; public concern over the inflationary impact of the wage-price spiral; and the unions’ own internal feuds and weaknesses.

The senate rackets investigation performed an invaluable service for labor, but its results thus far seem problematic. The AFL-CIO had long been aware that powerful underworld elements had captured several key unions, but the full extent of pollution did not become clear until the Senators began their hearings. Once the investigation was under way, there was no lack of disposition on the part of George Meany, Walter Reuther, David Dubinsky, George Harrison, and the other AFL-CIO leaders to fight the corrupt elements the committee had exposed. The federation quickly moved to expel from its ranks the strongest, most strategic, and most infected of all unions: the 1,500,000-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters, led by Dave Beck and Jimmy Hoffa. Beck went to jail, a victim of his own greed and Hoffa’s ambition. But Hoffa remained unreconstructed; he thumbed his nose at the Senators, at two prosecutions by the Justice Department, and at AFL-CIO orders to treat the teamsters as untouchables.

Today Hoffa is more firmly in command than ever. Other unions, far from shunning him, clamor for teamster aid in their strikes and organizing campaigns. The teamster payroll is still rife with extortionists and strongarm men, and Hoffa has just concluded an alliance with Harry Bridges, the pro-Communist president of the West Coast longshoremen, under which the two will, in effect, become the labor czars of Hawaii.

Ironically, the racket-ridden teamsters and the left-wing dockers enjoy exceedingly cordial relations with the major trucking and shipping companies—at a time when other unions are under intense employer attack. Furthermore, Hoffa, who is ostensibly the chief target of the labor reform laws Congress is now considering, boasts that his lobbyists have been more influential on Capitol Hill than those of the AFL-CIO. Many independent observers are inclined to credit his boast. In any case, both the AFL-CIO and Hoffa seem convinced that any laws Congress finally does pass in the labor field will hurt legitimate unions more than they will the free-wheeling teamsters.

The AFL-CIO can, however, point to one beneficial result of its clean-up campaign, which led to the ouster not only of the teamsters but of two other tainted unions, the Bakery and Confectionery Workers and the Laundry Workers. The extent to which the federation embraced high ethical standards undoubtedly helped labor to defeat “right to work” proposals in California, Ohio, and three smaller states in last November’s election. Industry groups had assumed that public resentment of union corruption would result in passage of these measures. In most states, too, the Republicans had built their Congressional campaigns around denunciations of “power-hungry union bosses.” The slogan proved a dud. Labor scored its most impressive political victories since the early days of Franklin Roosevelt, and Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona was virtually the only outspoken labor critic to emerge victorious from the election. Union leaders concluded that most of the voters, however they might disapprove specific union practices or personalities, would rally to labor’s defense if they felt a bill or a candidate was out to curb unions rather than to improve their functioning.

This comforting conclusion did not, however, solve the problems of unions under corrupt leadership, which has proved far more refractory than it appeared when the McClellan hearings began. So long as Meany remains president of the AFL-CIO and Hoffa president of the teamsters, the latter will not return to the federation. But in practical terms the exile of the teamsters has failed, and there is now an understandable reluctance on the part of the AFL-CIO to expel other big unions, whatever the sins of their leaders. The federation can take effective action against small organizations, too weak to resist its dictation, but big unions like the Carpenters, whose top officers are under indictment in Indiana on charges of profiting from a highway land scandal, now seem assured of immunity.

The larger society, as well as the union members, bears some responsibility for the frustration of the anti-Hoffa campaign. Obviously, the most important factor in Hoffa’s success is the continuing satisfaction of the teamsters with a leadership that brings home the economic bacon. Yet many union members were reluctant to penalize Hoffa or other labor leaders for manifest corruption when the business community seemed so undisturbed by the evidence of corruption in its own ranks. No employer was ousted from any management association because of testimony linking him with “sweetheart” contracts or payoffs to union racketeers. Indeed, most of the industry pressure for labor reform laws was concentrated on measures to hamper Walter Reuther and the United Auto Workers rather than Hoffa.



This legislative activity is part of a generally more assertive policy on the part of management in the last year. Employers have been organizing with considerable zeal in recent months to influence community voting patterns, along the very lines set up by the AFL-CIO Committee on Political Education (COPE). At the same time, they are engaging labor in an outright test of economic strength over the negotiation of new factory agreements. The steel strike which began on July 15 was the most dramatic evidence that a new era of bad feeling had arrived.

Industry’s new “hard” line comes as somewhat of a surprise to the unions. In 1955, Meany told the founding convention of the AFL-CIO that the battleground between labor and management had shifted from the picket line to the legislative halls. Yet the present steel strike was preceded by protracted shutdowns in the rubber and farm equipment industries, the grounding of four big airlines, and a grueling bargaining siege in the Big Three auto companies. Looming ahead is a battle between the railroads and the unions over “featherbedding,” a more explosive issue in the rail yards than in the steel industry. In these recent conflicts, labor and management seem to have reversed the roles that had been customary for them for more than two decades. Now it is the employers who present demands and form united fronts, and it is the unions who are compelled to retreat in an effort to achieve an agreement without going on strike.

Industry’s new militancy stems from two beliefs: first, that union pressure for higher wages has been a principal cause of inflation and that the public is unwilling to accept further price increases; and second, that the time has come for employers to stop “coddling” union leaders who show little interest in business efficiency or product quality. These feelings are strongest in the steel industry, because the steel companies and the steel union have been most prominent in the wage-price push since World War II. The price of steel rose nearly four times as fast as prices generally, while steel wages, which were fifteen and a half cents higher than the factory average in 1945, were eighty-seven cents above the average in 1959.

So determined were the steel manufacturers that the United Steelworkers, headed by David J. McDonald, were obliged to surrender almost immediately any hopes of substantial contract improvements this year, despite high profits and fat advance orders in the industry. Management made it plain that the union would have to agree to operating economies adequate to offset any rise, no matter how slight, in wages and fringe benefits. The economies were to be effected through extending management’s powers to eliminate restrictive local work practices-one of the touchiest areas of labor-management relations. At this point, any chance of a peaceful agreement vanished. The union’s rank and file, which had been rather cool to the idea of striking for higher wages, showed considerably greater determination to resist management’s plans for changing work assignments and plant rules, many of which had been in force even before the union was organized in 1936.

In the struggle for the support of public opinion, the companies missed one important opportunity to put the union on the defensive. Even a token cut in the price of steel, coupled with a wage freeze, would doubtless have impressed large numbers of Americans outside the steel industry. But the companies insisted that their profits during the first half of 1959 had been artificially swollen by advance purchases as a hedge against the expected strike. Furthermore, industry maintained, the pattern-setting impact of steel wages, rather than prices, was most responsible for inflation. In 1948, United States Steel had actually cut prices $1.25 a ton, but it canceled the cut and raised prices instead after wages were raised in the automobile industry; the steelmakers declared at the time that they alone could not hold the line on wage increases.

The outcome of the current strike will depend in large measure on President Eisenhower. He may allow the strike to continue until steel shortages begin to create a national emergency—a stage that would be reached about September. In the event that such an emergency is declared, the steel-workers would have to go back to the mills for a cooling-off period of eighty days. A second walkout at the end of this period would be a cruel test for men who were out of work as much as at work during the 1957-58 recession.

The other alternative open to the President is vigorous intervention in the manner of Harry S. Truman. The President could either appoint a fact-finding panel, or he could directly advise the parties to “settle, or else.” Unfortunately, under Truman both these methods invariably led to a wage increase, soon followed by a rise in prices. Since the current dispute might well have been settled before the strike by a wage increase small enough to be absorbed, such a denouement would be a sorry one indeed. However, the employers have insisted that they have no intention of “surrendering” to any settlement of the kind that passes the bill on to the consumer of steel. In fact, the steel companies told the White House that, in the absence of government compulsion, they will hold out forever against a strike settlement that would bring another price rise. The only thing wrong with this kind of pledge is that the national economy needs steel too badly to permit the government to keep hands off indefinitely.



The mounting indications of tougher employer resistance, not only in steel but in most other mass industries, will quite likely temper union demands for any wage increases larger than what would reflect increased labor productivity. (Such increases require no compensating rise in prices.) In the eleven years since Charles E. Wilson introduced the productivity principle into wages at General Motors, the auto union has demanded—and received—increases in excess of the 2.5 per cent a year the formula provided. Yet the productivity principle seems most beneficial to the public at large. If a broader measuring rod is needed to assure wage equity and an expanding economy, without inflation, such questions could be approached scientifically, and amicably, by both labor and management. Some form of profit-sharing, or of an employee stock-purchase plan geared to capacity-output, might provide an answer.

Most union leaders are now convinced, however, that industry’s crusade against inflation is spurious, and merely a cloak for a more basic offensive against union power. The industrialists, labor feels, would like to re-establish the primacy of the boss in all aspects of wage determination and internal plant management, thus restoring more or less the conditions that existed before the New Deal. Industry leaders deny such motives, but they make no secret of their belief that unions have used their great strength to push up costs and stifle competition. The industrialists argue that failure to check the rise of labor costs will price the United States out of world markets.

Whatever the merit of this argument today, the problem of comparative labor costs could without a doubt pose difficulties for the American economy in the future. Some difficulties are already apparent. Only a few months ago, union leaders in the needle trades, who have long supported liberal U.S. trade policies, felt compelled to urge the government to restrict the flood of cheap hats and garments being imported from Japan and Hong Kong. In a rapidly industrializing world, it will require exceptional statesmanship on the part of American labor and management to gear our operating and wage policies to international trade pressures.

The incredible productivity of our mines, mills, and factories makes the trade problem all the more urgent. In most of our major industries, we face the same over-capacity to produce that has created such a glut of farm products. Unless we can expand our domestic and foreign markets, we shall be unable to keep our steel plants open more than nine months a year, even in periods of great prosperity unmarred by strikes. Similar conditions will obtain in manufacturing industries as automation multiplies our ability to produce goods of every description.

A nationwide situation of this sort, marked by a surplus of manpower and plant capacity, would strongly resemble the situation that prevailed locally in the soft-coal mines before World War II. John L. Lewis then contended that the frequent strikes in the coal pits never cost either the country or the miners anything; he had statistics to show that in 200 days the mines could produce all the fuel the nation could burn in a year. It did not matter, he avowed, whether the idle time was caused by strikes called by the union or by layoffs ordered by the mine owners.

Since 1950, however, it has become necessary to keep coal prices down to prevent the loss of all coal’s markets to oil and natural gas, and Lewis himself has taken the lead in promoting efficiency through mechanization and the closing of marginal mines. The number of mine workers in the soft-coal fields has been reduced to 175,000, as compared with 700,000 forty years ago, but the miners who remain enjoy the highest wages and benefits in any major industry. At the same time the mine price today remains what it was just after World War II.



If American labor today seems challenged to make a fundamental reassessment of its relations with management and with the community, the fact is that it is in a poor position to respond to the challenge. The AFL-CIO is torn by internal bickering and animosities. Meany and Reuther, its two most forceful leaders, are constantly at swords’ points, and sometimes it appears that the only thing keeping them together is the fear of Hoffa and his cronies.

Yet the organization’s internal problems concern much more than personalities. The no-raiding pact, the very bedrock of the merger, seems about to crumble. James B. Carey of the International Union of Electrical Workers has precipitated a test case which is likely to be decisive. Despite a prohibition from the AFL-CIO Executive Council, Carey insisted on petitioning for a National Labor Relations Board election to determine whether 500 workers at a Long Island instrument plant wished to desert the Sheet Metal Workers International Association in favor of his union. The vote showed they did—by a margin of more than three to one. Now the AFL-CIO must decide whether to blink at the “raid” or order the Carey union expelled for violating its injunction. It is not likely that the 325,000 members of the electrical union will be expelled for taking in a small group of refugees from the sheet metal union. But it is equally unlikely that the raided metal union will stop boycotting air-conditioning equipment made by the electrical workers and their sympathizers, the steel workers, auto workers, and machinists—even if the AFL-CIO demands an end to the boycott.

Once defiance of executive council directives begins it will be hard to stop. Several major unions already have indicated their intention of slugging it out with AFL-CIO rivals over representation rights. One of the bitterest fights is likely to be between Michael J. Quill’s Transport Workers Union and the Utility Workers Union over control of workers in three subway power plants recently transferred from public to private ownership. The Quill union has asked the NLRB to rule that the subway plants should be recognized as a separate bargaining unit. Quill’s aggressiveness in this matter stems from a painful experience a year ago. Then, the transport workers had won an election among Pan American World Airways stock clerks, who had previously been represented by the International Association of Machinists. When the AFL-CIO advised the Quill union to withdraw, it did. But the stock clerks refused to go back to the machinists, and in a second election they voted overwhelmingly to bargain through Hoffa’s outcast Teamsters Union.



Overshadowing the squabbling between craft and industrial unions and between rivals for personal power, is American labor’s lack of positive, clearly defined goals. Automation is melting away the membership of the mass unions in many industries, in much the same manner that coal-cutters and loaders eliminated tens of thousands of miners. Even in the factories, blue-collar mechanics are giving way to technicians and clerks. Soon the power of unions to strike will be sharply reduced by management’s ability to maintain operations with a relative handful of supervisors and technicians outside union ranks. This is already a major factor in the telephone industry: the dial system and automatic equipment have stripped the Communications Workers of America of any real capacity to disrupt telephone service.

The unionized area of our economy is tending to contract, and the unions have thus far failed to develop an authentic appeal to the millions of unorganized employees in white-collar work, public service, textiles, and chemicals. Employers are showing more and more skill in using weapons originally devised by unions to discomfit them in bargaining, while the unions appear to have run out of imaginative new social ideas, at the same time that the age-old goal of “more” becomes less and less appealing as workers come to identify it with inflation.

Does all this indicate that the unions are spiritless and moribund, no longer a social force to be reckoned with seriously? Certainly no one who witnessed the recent New York hospital strike would draw such a conclusion. Old-line leaders, jaded with years of soft living, worked with the enthusiasm of youngsters on behalf of Negro and Puerto Rican hospital employees who earned less in a week than some of their own members earned in a day. The labor movement has not lost its esprit and sense of dedication; the fight over local work rules brought it flickering up out of the banked blast furnaces in the steel industry.

The unions remain the only consistent voice in American society agitating for higher minimum wages, a comprehensive Federal health program, increased government outlays for housing, education, aid to depressed areas, and many other measures that go beyond the bread and butter of their own members. Yet, despite the heavy preponderance of labor-endorsed candidates in both houses of Congress, labor’s political influence remains sporadic at best—perhaps because politicians assume that the rank and file union members are concerned only with their own immediate interests. The politicians may be right. In recent months, organizers of COPE regional rallies reported that there was little political enthusiasm among unionists at the grass-roots level. No issue roused them from their apathy, and they gave scarcely any response to the aspiring Republican and Democratic Presidential candidates who addressed them. But the new hardening of employer attitudes may, paradoxically, awaken the workers’ political interest and dispose them to participate more actively in next year’s campaign. This makes it all the more urgent for labor to clarify its goals—not in the outmoded terms of class struggle, or so as to pit unions against the public, but in terms that revive the sense of vocation which makes organized labor indispensable for a democratic society.




1 “Unions and the Public Interest: The Degeneration of Collective Bargaining,” February 1954.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.