The union busting happening in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere takes its place in a long line.
In 1983, the Phelps Dodge Corporation pushed the unions that represented its copper mineworkers in its Arizona mines to strike. Making sure to follow to the letter a plan drawn up by conservative think-tanks and business experts at the Wharton School of Management, Phelps Dodge set out to bust its unions and break the pattern of bargaining that had made mineworkers a solid part of the American middle class. The plan laid out in the book Operating During Strikes was fairly straight-forward: Make unreasonable demands that any union would reject, and once the union goes on strike replace all the workers with scabs. Then all the company had to do was hold out for a year, at which time the new scab workforce would be eligible to vote to decertify the striking workers’ union and effectively end the dispute.
Phelps Dodge and other critical losses such as Reagan’s busting of PATCO opened the flood gates, and the result was an unprecedented wave of concessionary bargaining and union busting that swept the nation. Companies accelerated the use of the new tactic so that they could boost profits by slashing labor costs, and the ensuing union-busting bonanza combined with the prevention of new union organizing caused union density in the private sector to plummet. Even before access to the third world’s labor supply by means of offshoring became such a quick and easy answer to the “labor question,” it was already a foregone conclusion that unions that didn’t organize aggressively and fight globally would only continue to shrink.
Phelps Dodge was probably one of the most important moments in labor history in the 20th century because it effectively neutralized the strike, labor’s primary weapon. Going on an economic strike from that point on meant a life-or-death gamble for unions because of the ever-looming threat of workers being permanently replaced. One needs to look no further than this to see why strike activity, the most potent bargaining tool available to unions, declined to its lowest level since the Gilded Age.
A law change that would have banned companies from permanently replacing striking workers was introduced into Congress during the Clinton years but never went anywhere. A system of politics corrupted by corporate graft and besmirched with political wedge issues ensured that our nation’s labor laws would remain static despite a torrent of new developments that necessitated policy change. In a telling indication of what the future had in store, unions only saw the restrictions on their activities and finances grow alongside an atmosphere of sweeping industrial and financial deregulation.
Amid the growing catastrophe in private sector unionism, the one saving grace that cushioned the blow to working America’s only bastion of institutional strength was union growth in the public sector. Academics warned years in advance that increased hostility from state and municipal governments was a likely development, but very few could have predicted just how sustained or coordinated the corporate-sponsored assault on workers’ rights would be.
May 1, 2011
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John Ertl lives in Park Falls, Wisconsin, and is a student at Cornell University.