History of Unionization: Putting the NLRB Decision in Context

Unions have existed nearly as long as wage labor. Although they emerged from the guild system, which limited labor pools by passing trade knowledge from master to apprentice in trades like shoemaking, carpentry, and printing, by the 19th century, unions had also become a way for workers to collectively negotiate—and improve—their working conditions and compensation. The pressures of industrial capitalism encouraged workers in the rapidly growing factories to organize for better wages, working conditions, political rights—and the eight-hour work day. Between the 1870s and 1880s, hundreds of thousands of industrial workers joined unions. Organization led to victories: one by one, industries and employers caved to demands for shorter working hours. The eight-hour day became Federal law in 1937. Along the way, workers established powerful organizations to fight for their rights at work, some of which remain in existence today like the United Mine Workers and the American Federation of Labor.

Unions were never, however, solely the purview of skilled artisans. In the United States, in fact, African Americans, women, and immigrants—the workers who were paid the least for “unskilled” jobs like street scraping, ditch digging, dock labor and textile work—were often at the forefront of organizing unions, and their demands for better wages and working conditions also included demands for recognition, dignity, and respect. Women seamstresses in Baltimore organized what was arguably the first living wage campaign in the United States in 1833. “We believe the time has come now,” the women resolved, “when we should come forward in justification of our rights.” Thirty years later, African American waiters, aggrieved not only by poor wages but by the indignities they were forced to suffer at work, including being whistled at “like dogs” by their supervisors, organized the first nationwide restaurant strike under the newly formed Waiters Protective Association. In the early 1900s, textile workers, overwhelmingly immigrant women from Eastern and Southern Europe, struck by the hundreds of thousands and won better rates for their piece work.

Despite all their gains, however, the American labor movement struggled to hold on to their victories. Because no law enshrined the right of workers to organize, unions had to fight constantly to be recognized by their employers—a struggle that graduate workers at private universities can certainly relate to. But the National Labor Relations Act, passed in 1935 in the midst of the Great Depression, changed that, compelling employers to recognize and negotiate with workers’ unions when a majority of workers vote to join. The law also legalized strikes and other forms of collective action. Workers across the United States took the passage of the NLRA as a green light to organize, and a new wave of strikes swept across the country, establishing unions in industries previously thought to be “unorganizable.” This wave of organizing included the formation of the United Auto Workers which, following some organizing wins at smaller factories, organized the Flint sit-down strike, where workers occupied their plants. The sit-down strike not only stopped production, but prevented workers from being replaced during the strike which lasted nearly two months. In the end, the workers were successful. They left the factory with union recognition, a pay increase, and a renewed sense of dignity. The nation’s auto plants, previously thought impossible to organize, became some of the biggest union strongholds in the nation.

Other workers soon copied their example, including women clerks at Woolworth’s, the Wal-Mart of its day, who occupied their store in Detroit less than a month after the successful conclusion of the Flint sit-down. They also won big: recognition, raises, over-time pay, and incredibly—back pay for the week-long strike. The win sparked a wave of retail sit-down strikes across the country. According to historian Dana Frank, the strikers won because “of their own sense of audacity…and their faith in themselves.”

The explosion of union organizing, however, excluded huge swaths of the American workforce because the NLRA didn’t cover domestic and agricultural workers—or public sector employees. And because the workers in these sectors tended to be black, brown, and women, they faced an additional barrier to recognition, respect, and dignity. Still, understanding that collective action was their best chance to improve their working conditions and standard of living, workers in these industries demanded the right to unionize—and they won. The United Farm Workers organized the fields that grew the nation’s food, winning recognition not only by striking, but by building nationwide boycotts. The UFW gave a voice to a largely Mexican-American workforce and spurred Chicano organizing in cities like Los Angeles. In Memphis, 1300 black sanitation workers walked off the job in 1968 following years of racist and dangerous working conditions which culminated in the death of two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, in a garbage compactor. The strikers marched under the slogan “I am a man.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who came to Memphis to support the strike, was assassinated in its third month. Twelve days later, the strike ended in victory for the workers. Meanwhile, across the nation, other public sector employees—teachers, firefighters, clerks, and librarians—organized unions in a sector that still remains heavily unionized today. It was in these years, beginning in the late 1960s, that graduate employees at public universities like the University of Wisconsin, Rutgers University, and the University of Michigan organized their unions.

Beginning in the 1970s, however, the old industrial unions in the US began to lose some of their power as global systems of capital restructured production and moved factories to places like China and Mexico, where production costs were significantly less. Today, as workers in China and nations across the global south continue to organize for better wages and working conditions and build the strength of their unions, factory jobs are returning to the US, where wages have dropped substantially—sometimes by more than 50 percent when a previously union factory is re-opened as non-union.

Simultaneously, the rise of neoliberal politics, which valued the measure of the market above all else, even the living standards of workers, made unions a favorite villain of many politicians, including Ronald Reagan, who fired 13,000 union air traffic controllers for striking in 1981. His British counterpart, Margaret Thatcher, set out to crush the National Union of Mineworkers just three years later. The defeats sent a chill through the labor movement. They showed that rights, even after they had been won, could be taken away. Unions still managed to make some gains in these years, however, particularly around issues of parental leave. And some unions, including the United Mine Workers and the Teamsters, managed to wage large and successful strikes that improved their members lives and work. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a wave of organizing also swept through higher education, and public sector graduate employees won unions at places like the University of California and the University of Illinois.

Although the national political climate remained hostile to unions, poor working conditions, low wages, and discrimination on the job drove people to organize. In 2008, facing the loss of their jobs, workers at Republic Windows and Doors occupied their factory on Chicago’s Goose Island, harkening back to the sit-down strikes of the 1930s. The strike gained national attention and they won. Republic Windows and Doors was turned into a worker-owned company. In recent years, following a global upsurge in protest and organizing, the labor movement in the United States is once again on the move—from the Fight for $15, which demands not only a living wage for fast food workers but also union recognition, to port truckers along the west coast. The labor movement, as it has become more diverse, has also continued to grapple with the problems of racism, sexism, queerphobia, and ableism which divide workers, and can obscure the common interest we have in joining together to improve our lives. Unions like the Chicago Teachers Union have fought not only for better working conditions, but for an end to apartheid schools in Chicago. National Nurses United is fighting environmental racism on many fronts, including in South East Chicago, where petcoke threatens the health of thousands in mostly black and Latinx neighborhoods. Fast food workers adopted the slogan of Black Lives Matter and put forward a Black Work Matters program.

And now, with August’s NLRB ruling, graduate employees at private universities have the proverbial green light to organize. In doing so, they can join a long line of working people, not just in the United States but internationally, who have joined together to improve their working conditions and wages and to demand dignity and respect.