Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: Why Unions Matter by Michael D. Yates

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Strength in numbers

I've never given unions much thought. I am not in one, nor do I know more than a few people who are. I've had no reason to know much about unions. But that’s changing now.

When Clark and I were writing our latest novel Bonnie and Clyde: Resurrection Road, we dug deep into the outlaw lovers' biographies. At first, our research was focused on the details of their lives, but soon it become clear that we couldn’t divorce their actions from the prevailing economic context. The duo came of age at the height of America’s Great Depression in the 1930s, a time of unprecedented (until now) wealth inequality. So, we broadened our scope to consider whether their actions might have been spurred by economic desperation. 

We delved into literature about the economic collapse in that era, which led to readings about capitalism in general, and then to considerations about what factors led to the Depression, and by contrast, what factors allowed the U.S. to transform that death spiral into a subsequent decades-long golden age for the expansion and economic security of the middle class. People look back on that era, the 1950s to the early 1980s or so, even now, with reverent nostalgia, wondering how we got from there to here, with a 21st century moneyed 1% oligarchy controlling the U.S. economy and, to a large extent, government policy, as the middle class shrinks at alarming rates and poverty explodes. 

One point in particular stood out from all this reading—the trajectory of the middle class seems linked to the strength of unions. In the post-World War II booming years, an organized working class counterbalanced the inherent for-profit drive of capitalism. The unions, to some degree, wrested a fair share of those profits for the workers in the form of high wages, pensions, and health care, along with dignity and respect. Those were heady days. 

With this observation, I set about to learn more about unions (which will be a focus of the second book in the Bonnie and Clyde series). Luckily, I stumbled on a great book right out of the gate. Why Unions Matter by Michael D. Yates provides an excellent, highly readable overview of the history of unions in America, what they achieved and how they failed. From this, the argument largely makes itself for why we still need unions.

Yates starts with a strong introduction, helping readers to understand why this topic remains relevant, as we move farther from a manufacturing based economy. In today’s era, it can be difficult to grasp the concept of working class but Yates spells it out succinctly. “We have a capitalist economic system that by its nature divides people into two classes: those who own the workplaces and those who work for them.” The former can be either direct ownership or shareholders. Unions are about organizing people to present a collective voice that advocates for the well-being of employees, no matter who owns or controls the business.  

The book then moves on, using a historical architecture, taking the reader from the early origins of collective action and bargaining, through the apogee in the post-World War II era, and the slow, painful demise of influence and membership of unions in the modern era—caused by mistakes made by union leaders now visible in hindsight and exacerbated by a concerted attack by capitalists to blunt the power and voice of workers in decision-making. Yates, a respected scholar on this topic, provides engaging examples, many focused on life stories about the individuals involved in organizing, illustrating his points.

At their peak, unions achieved many things. Yates provides compelling data-rich analyses of the standard of living of workers in a union, such as the United Auto Workers, compared to those not in a union. The spillover effect to non-union industries was also substantial; businesses treated workers better simply out of fear they might unionize. The unions also advocated for polices at the local, state and federal government levels that would benefit workers.

However, this book is at its most powerful describing what went wrong. In short, early idealism about organizing workers into a bloc as a counterweight to industry in a capitalist economy fell victim to age-old human love of power and fear of the “other.” 

For instance, Yates describes the union leadership’s deliberate decision during their ascent, a moment when they were at their strongest, to embrace the two-party political system—rather than starting a new labor party with clout of its own—and the parallel goal to use union money (member dues) to lobby for policies benefiting workers and individual candidates. Mostly this aligned unions with, and strengthened, the Democratic Party. Given the current diminished clout of unions, it’s difficult not to conclude in hindsight that alignment rather than establishing a worker-centric party was a missed opportunity of monumental proportions. 

The effects of this political decision were amplified by the way unions organized trades, in part due to the sense of superiority of “craft unions,” resulting in groupings based on skills with bargaining aimed to enrich members only. This myopic focus inevitably led to intra-class competition as leaders felt obliged to land the best situation for their own members, thereby cannibalizing broader impact, but also inevitably to short-term deals with politicians and business entitles that, in many cases, had little interest in supporting unions for the long-term. “Over the years, craft unions developed cozy relationships with politicians who could throw work their way. This involved a great deal of corruption between union officials, business owners and politicians.”

Further, the unwillingness of some unions in the early days to embrace civil rights and African-American workers was another misguided decision. A similar reaction to the women’s rights movement, the unemployed, and by extension to current times, immigrants’ rights also played out. Putting aside ethical considerations, from a practical standpoint, ignoring these worker groups simply left their membership too skimpy. 

And what to my mind might be the worst miscalculation—in the McCarthy era, the union leaders gave into the hysteria around communism at a time when socialist organizers (the few organizers who welcomed African Americans) were poised to introduce ideas that could have radically transformed the American workplace. Just imagine a world where workers united across all trades and job types demanding an end to the two-tier wage-based economy itself. Or universal health care. Or free child care.These ideas that were by intent focused on fundamental economic restructuring were swept aside at a the unique moment in history when they may have been achievable as the unions worked to effectively ban anyone with socialists leanings. Now, the industrialists have the upper hand and “efficiencies” increase while real wages shrink. 

What’s next, now that union membership is at historic lows except for a few pockets? I didn’t get many solutions in this book. Except for this: “How can unions regain their former strength and increase it?” Yates asks, and then answers. “Unions can only grow when they are part of a larger political and social movement.” 

That makes sense, but even with a movement, a formidable challenge is people like me, who know little about the purpose, value and former leverage of unions and, instead, hear of unions only through the demonization that routinely occurs through the highly successful messaging of anti-union entities. ("Right to work?" Who came up with that sinisterly brilliant Orwellian phrase? And where is the the union retort?) 

Without a dynamic messaging and educational platform, it’s hard to see the unions ever regaining their strength. And yet now, when the economic landscape is once again as unequal as it was during the Great Depression and workers have the least influence and power in half a century, we need unions more than ever.

Enough is enough. Let's get to work and build the narrative that I've just learned. And maybe this time, we could turn back the clock and start a new political party that exists to serve people, workers, and not just those who own the workplaces, and the capital.