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The Paradox of the American Labor Movement

It’s a great time to be in a union—but a terrible time to try to start a new one.

A century ago, an even smaller portion of the workforce belonged to a union than does today, and it showed. Then, as now, income inequality had reached staggering heights. Industrial workplaces of the 1920s were police states, with corporate spy agencies, private armies, and company stores.

The tide shifted in workers’ favor during the Great Depression. In 1935, responding to years of rising labor militancy, Congress passed the Wagner Act, an integral part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda. The law gave working people robust rights to form and join labor unions and to take collective action, such as strikes. It created the National Labor Relations Board, tasked with ensuring that employers didn’t violate these rights. And it declared that protecting “the free flow of commerce” also meant protecting the “full freedom” of working people to organize. Overall union membership rose from just 11 percent of the workforce in 1934 to 34 percent in 1945.

Then the tide shifted back. After the Congress of Industrial Organizations began organizing multiracial unions in the South, segregationist Southern Democrats, whose votes had been crucial for passing the Wagner Act, joined forces with pro-corporate Republicans to stymie the New Deal labor agenda. This effort culminated in the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which stripped key labor protections from the Wagner Act. President Harry Truman denounced the bill as “a shocking piece of legislation” that would “take fundamental rights away from our working people.” But the Senate overrode his veto.

Taft-Hartley marked the beginning of the end of America’s short-lived period of strong organized-labor rights. It allowed states to pass “right to work” laws that let workers free-ride on union benefits without paying dues, which would help keep southern states low-wage and non-union. Taft-Hartley made it a crime for workers to join together across employers in “sympathy strikes” (unlike in Sweden, where postal workers refused last year to deliver license plates as a show of support for striking Tesla workers), or even across workplaces in the same industry. It also included anti-communist provisions that led to a purge of many of the labor movement’s most effective organizers, especially those most successful in promoting multiracial organizing. Taken together, these changes choked off the growth of working-class solidarity that was flourishing in other Western democracies at the time.