(The following interview with former Michigan State University Professor and Labor Economist Jack Stieber--who died at the age of 91 in March 2011—about historic labor issues was previously published in the February 5, 1997 issue of the Aquarian/Downtown alternative weekly newspaper.)
Aquarian/Downtown: So you’re talking about a situation [in the late 1940s] when labor’s influence in the United States seemed to be at its peak?
Stieber: Well, it was certainly very high. Because during the war prices and wages had been controlled, so that when the war was over, unions said `we have lost a lot during this period, due to inflation, and we’ve got to make it up.’ And strikes were being threatened and actually carried out all over the country.
Take Walter Reuther for example, and the UAW, who had just become president of the UAW, having defeated the communist forces. There was a lot of internal fighting within the union which had been very close to the Communist Party. But Reuther and his faction eventually became the foremost activists in the union and the issues that were then being posed—for example, pensions. At that time there were no negotiated pensions among unions and companies. And, in fact, when the steelworkers made one of their major issues in 1949 to negotiate pensions, the government set up a three-member impartial panel to hear the case in New York City. And it was even argued that pensions were not negotiable. In other words, that pensions were exclusive to employers. But the board held that they were negotiable.
Eventually, through strikes and other labor actions they become fairly universal. Pensions began to become part of collective bargaining. And by 1950 the automobile workers, the steelworkers, electrical workers, etc.—a lot of the unions—had succeeded in negotiating on pensions.
I worked in the Steelworkers for two years, but then the Korean War started in 1950 while Truman was president. And he called on unions to forego the strike weapon during the war and cooperate with government. Which they had done during World War II. But one of the things that Philip Murray had learned during that period was that while in World War II the government gave some very top-level positions to union people—like Sidney Hillman, for example, or the textile workers union, Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and so on, UAW, and others.
But Murray had learned that the people who really do the work and deal with day-to-day problems are at sort of a middle level. So that his position at that time was that `we want a bunch of our young people to go to work for the government’ on matters that had relationships to unions at middle-level type positions. And he identified me as one of the people to go down to Washington and to do that. So after working a a few agencies, I then became the executive assistant to the C.I.O. members of the Wage Stabilization Board. There was still a bifurcated labor movement. The A.F. of L. was one federation, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations was another. And there was a tripartite Wage Stabilization Board established.
I think it had six industry members, six labor members and six public members. The labor members were generally presidents of unions and I sort of worked for them—Emile Reavy, president of the Textile Workers, Joe Chiles, president of the Rubber Workers, Joe Byrne, president of the Communications Workers were three of my principals. But as union presidents they were not in a position to sit around in an office and do things. So I had a small staff and would work directly with the other staff members in the agency.
Aquarian/Downtown: It sounds like at that time the government seemed to be more inclusive in terms of labor. And labor had influence. What has happened between now and then?
Stieber: It wouldn’t be any different, even now. whenever there is a national emergency—and a war is the utmost national emergency there can be—the government has to try to co-opt the unions to cooperate. And union members and officers are really reflective of the United States, generally. They’re patriotic. So when there’s a war they say `We’re not going to interfere with war production. On the other hand, we’re not going to allow our members to suffer while others are making money out of the war. And therefore we want to be a part of whatever is being done.’
So unions were important. By the mid-1950s, unions represented about 33 percent of the labor industry, which did not include any public unions.
Since then, unions have declined from about 33 percent to about 15 percent [in 1997]. And whereas in the 1950s it was all private sector, a significant part of the labor movement today is public sector. In fact some of the largest unions, like AFSCME—American Federation of State, County, Municipal Employees, teachers’ unions, the government unions, constitute a very significant part.
Aquarian/Downtown: You mentioned that decline in numbers. In your viewpoint, having studied the whole situation for years, what has caused that decline?
Stieber: Well, I think a lot of things. One of them is the structure of industry has changed. Whereas the unions were most effective in organizing large-scale industries like steel and textile and electronics and automobiles, the structure of industry has changed so that these industries have become less important. For example, the automobile probably employed over a million workers. But as a result of increases in technology and automation and so on, they were able to reduce their labor force. And as a result, reducing membership in unions to what is now on the order of, probably, 400,000 to 500,000 among the Big Three: Chrysler, Ford and General Motors. General Motors would be still the largest.
Another is that employers have always preferred to work without unions. Some of the companies that were eventually organized as a result of very bitter strikes, where people were killed and things like that, once the unions were recognized in companies like Ford and General Motors, they were able to work together. They would be able to negotiate contracts. Occasionally there would be strikes. But these major companies were generally accepting of the fact that they had to work with the unions. Because the unions had organized their workers. But, if there is an opportunity, employers would still prefer to work without unions.
And the National Labor Relations Act—which was a great boost for labor organization in the 1930s and after the war—allows employers to resist unions quite effectively. And they can string you out a long period of time before you can have an election. And if you’re in an organizing campaign, you can’t get an election at the height of your membership’s support. They can put it off for months or even a year or so. Union support will decline. And, eventually, the elections will not be successful.
The structure of American industry, where these major mass production industries became less important, also had the effect of reducing the clout of labor unions. That, along with the continuing opposition of employers in the United States, had a lot to do with it. And also the international competition which you now have since the ‘80s or thereabouts. If companies became internationalized, and you can get products made more cheaply in Asian countries or in Mexico or in some other place, that effectively makes it more difficult for unions to organize and also to get the kind of contracts that they would be negotiating with managements.
So, as a result, gradually from 33 percent, unions have gone down to about 15.8 percent. Of which only about 11 percent are private sector [in 1997].
But I think one of the things that one shouldn’t lose sight of is, despite the fact that unions only represent about half the proportion of the workforce, they still account for about 18 million members [in 1997]. You don’t have any other sector of the economy where you have that many individuals who are a part of a movement.
I think one might fault the labor movement since the late 1970s for not pursuing organization efforts strongly enough. Once a union becomes entrenched it’s a lot easier for a staff member to do his day-to-day job and service the local union, handle grievances, represent them in arbitration and do things like that, than to go out and do the organizing of new workers. And the A.F. of L.-C.I.O. under Meany and, subsequently, when Lane Kirkland was president, did not really put a very high priority on organization.
Now whether or not things are likely to change with a new administration? They seem to be putting greater efforts into organization. And one of the things that they also are doing especially during this election period, is spending a lot of money on political action. Something like $30 million [in 1996] devoted to supporting candidates and advertising and so on.
Do we expect that this will make a big change in organization? The odds are that it won’t. Instead of 15.8 percent, you might creep up to another percentage point or two. But I think the labor movement is not likely to grow very much more than it is today. But it still is an effective force in many industries. (end of part 2)