Unions and the struggle for democratic rights

May 29, 2008

Registered nurses on strike in Oakland, Calif., October 2007. Photo: Bill Hackwell

Since when did unions become a special interest?

Many people complain about the influence of “special interests” in politics. Reformers claim that lobbying on behalf of these special interests distorts the democratic voting process during elections and in Congress.

Of course, the presence of lobbyists representing multi-billion-dollar corporations and business groups or right-wing groups funded by the super-rich would horrify anyone interested in the democratic principle of equal rights for all. It is the most blatant example of how big money greases the “democratic” process in the United States.

But within this attack on special interests, some reformers equate the lobbying and political donations by labor unions to that of corporations and industrial associations. Unions that represent the “special” interests of working people with no wealth or privilege other than their ability to organize and act collectively are equated with corporations whose real interests are profits for the banks and a handful of wealthy families that own them.

In this way, progressive sentiments are twisted into a perverse anti-worker and anti-union agenda. Unions are portrayed as shadowy, corrupt organizations that take their members’ dues and use this money to distort the democratic political process.

On the contrary, unions have been integrally involved in the struggle for democratic rights since their inception. That includes the basic democratic right to freely associate as workers engage in collective action to improve their conditions. But it has also meant deep involvement in the historic movement to expand democratic rights in the United States, including the struggle against slavery in the Civil War period and later struggles for civil rights and against racism.

Unions emerged in the United States, like elsewhere in the world, in the context of the emergence of capitalism. While there are records of a struggle of fishermen demanding payment of wages as early as 1636,1 modern unions or trade societies began to emerge in the early 19th century, primarily among skilled workers, who began to implement the principle of collective bargaining with the bosses to protect their interests. During labor conflicts, workers engaged in “turn-outs” or strikes to fight for higher wages, shorter hours and better working conditions. They organized picket lines to prevent scabs from taking their jobs.2

The bosses and owners had the laws and police on their side. For example, as early as 1806, bosses sued the Journeymen Cordwainers (shoemakers) in Philadelphia after a series of strikes for higher wages. The judge ordered the jury to find the union guilty of forming a “combination” for the purpose of raising wages and hampering “free trade.”3 Other legal decisions in that era found unions to be “illegal conspiracies.”

Against slavery

The labor movement grew out of the class contradictions of the new capitalism that was taking root in northern U.S. cities. But U.S. capitalism had a historical particularity: It arose intimately connected to the slave system in the South. On the one hand, the new manufacturing industries in the North were largely based on the wealth generated by the Southern plantation systems. On the other, capitalism depended on a system of “free” wage labor, as opposed to the bonded labor of slavery.

Marx’s famous expression—“labor in white skin will never be free as long as labor in Black skin is branded”—was not some philosophical or moral code. It was being felt instinctively by workers who were themselves struggling against brutally exploitative working conditions.

“From the organization of the very first local trade unions in the United States in the 1790s, it was found difficult to raise wages for shoemakers, shipbuilders and bricklayers when a few hundred miles to the south shoes were made, ships were built and bricks were laid for no pay at all to the slave worker,” wrote Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais in their classic text, “Labor’s Untold Story.” “The New England Workingmen’s Association resolved that ‘American slavery must be uprooted before the elevation sought by the laboring classes can be effected.’”4

The 1861-65 Civil War between the North and the South was at its core a struggle between the system of slavery and the more advanced capitalist system. Workers understood their stake in the battle, volunteering by the thousands to fight to defeat the South. More than 50 percent of male workers in the North ended up on the battlefield. Entire union locals joined en masse.5

From the end of the Civil War in 1865 to the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, workers staged fierce class battles against the more and more powerful capitalists and robber barons that grew up in the ashes of slavery. Miners, railroad workers and textile workers all waged heroic battles for the simple democratic right to collectively bargain a contract. At various times, these struggles and organizing efforts merged into a class-wide social movement, like the movement for the eight-hour day of the 1880s.

Whatever gains the unions were able to make were usually paid for in blood and were always at risk. Bosses formed associations to oppose unionization, calling for the “open shop” and encouraging “yellow dog” contracts, in which workers had to agree not to join a union in order to be hired.6

Following the 1877 railway strike—the first nationwide strike by U.S. workers to demonstrate the possibility of Black and white labor unity—the bosses along with conservative and racist elements in the labor movement aggressively promoted a policy of white supremacy in hiring practices. Unions were organized on a narrow craft basis. Excluding Black workers from the unions meant denying them access to skilled jobs. This had a profound and long-lasting impact on the Black community. It strengthened the hand of all the anti-democratic trends and forces.

By 1902, W.E.B. Du Bois reported on the effects of the “racial practices” of the unions. In “The Negro Artisan,” he found that 43 national unions, operating in both the North and the South and including the railroad brotherhoods, reported not having a single Black member7.

The most advanced elements of the labor movement, including the most militant sectors of the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World, saw the labor movement as one front in a broad effort for social change. Struggling against the forces of racism within the union movement became a centerpiece in the struggle to expand the democratic rights of labor.

Mass struggles of the 1930s

As the Great Depression took hold in the 1930s, 15 million workers lost their jobs. For the first few years, organized labor seemed paralyzed, but communist-led struggles by the unemployed and veterans began to heat up. Under this growing pressure, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt came into office in 1932 with his “New Deal” to save the capitalist system through a series of reforms that were intended to stabilize the economy and get people back to work.

A key component of the New Deal was the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act. The NIRA had many components, but for unions the key feature was section 7(a), which for the first time granted workers the legal right to organize, bargain collectively and strike.

While having such a law on the books was not enough to make it so, workers fought to make the right of collective bargaining a reality. In 1933, more than 900,000 workers went on strike, triple the number of the year before.8

The strike wave continued, with workers demonstrating great militancy with tactics such as mass picket lines, sit-down strikes, mobile squads, sound trucks, women’s auxiliaries and general strikes. Despite the legal recognition of the right of collective bargaining, workers experienced repression as they fought to take advantage of this right. Workers were jailed, gassed and shot at. From 1934 to 1936, for example, 88 workers were killed while on strike.9

In 1935, the NIRA was declared unconstitutional, but was replaced by the National Labor Relations Act, also called the Wagner act. The NLRA also guaranteed the right of collective bargaining.

The NLRA regulates the right of workers to form a union and engage in collective bargaining. And while the Wagner Act promised more workers’ rights, it also channeled the struggle into tedious and bureaucratic election processes. Nonetheless, the enshrinement of the right to organize as a legal principle represented a victory for union democracy.

By this time, though, the labor struggles of the 1930s had won much more than the right for workers to organize. Public works projects gave jobs to millions. Farm programs gave needed help to farmers. The 1935 Social Security Act provided unemployment insurance and social security for retired workers. Minimum-wage legislation was signed into law in 1938, and Social Security was expanded to include Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. These gains were products of labor struggles that benefited not just organized workers but all workers.

Labor and civil rights

As organizations designed to win gains for working people, it was natural that unions would provide an avenue for African -Americans to press their demands for civil rights. A. Philip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, formed in 1929, and the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, an interracial but primarily Black union of sharecroppers, took up labor struggles and anti-racist struggles as part and parcel of the same fight.

During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, a number of unions stepped up to play an important role in giving the rapidly developing movement an organizational infrastructure. A high point of that solidarity may have been the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom, site of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. That march, initiated by Randolph, was backed by the Auto Workers, Electrical Workers, Hospital Workers and many others.

One of King’s lasting legacies was his efforts to build Black-labor unity. He walked countless picket lines and was assassinated while he was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers.

“Negroes are almost entirely a working people,” King told a convention of the AFL-CIO on Dec. 11, 1961. “Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.

“That is why the labor-hater and the labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature, spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”

In the late 1960s, as mass political radicalization swept the country, militant African American workers formed caucuses inside many of the existing unions, insisting on greater leadership roles for Black workers.

When they are at their strongest and at their highest level of class-consciousness, unions are not a “special interest.” They represent the interests of working people—the whole multinational working class. And while today the labor movement is weaker than at any time in decades, it is the job of socialists and working-class fighters to organize the workers into unions as “schools of communism,” waging struggles on day-to-day issues and on the broader issues facing workers: against war and racism, for jobs and equality.


1. F.R. Dulles and M. Dubofsky, Labor in America, a History, 4th ed., (Harlan Davidson, Arlington Heights, Ill., 1984), p. 22.

2. Ibid., Chap. 2, “The First Unions.”.

3. Ibid., p. 29-30.

4. R.O. Boyer and H.M. Morais, Labor’s Untold Story (3rd ed.), (UE, Pittsburgh, Pa., 1955). pp. 16-17.

5. Ibid., p. 18.

6. See Dulles and Dubofsky, Chapter 11, “The Progressive Era”.

7. W.E.B. Du Bois (ed.), The Negro Artisan: Report of a Social Study Made Under the Direction of Atlanta University, (Atlanta University Press, Atlanta, 1902), p. 167.

8. Boyer and Morais, pp. 275-276.

9. Ibid., p. 276.