Prospects are dim for the
aircraft mechanics’ strike against Northwest Airlines. Hot on the heels of the
AFL-CIO convention schism, the strike’s feebleness adds to the impression of a
steep decline in the power of organized labor.
Many observers explain this deterioration by arguing that American unions are out of favor because they no
longer represent the interests of most American workers.
The truth is they never did.
Despite all of their rhetoric
about "solidarity" and "unity," labor unions are essentially monopolies or
cartels whose aim is to eliminate competition for their members. This exclusion
enables them to raise the price of their labor.
Thus, until very recently,
organized labor sought restrictions on immigration. In the 19th century, unions
led the campaign to restrict Chinese immigration — indeed, the "union label"
campaign was meant to enable consumers to boycott products made by Chinese
workers. The original union label read, "The cigars contained herein are made by
WHITE MEN." "The Caucasians are not going to let their standard of living be
destroyed by Negroes, Chinamen, Japs, or any other," warned AFL president Samuel
Gompers a century ago.
Blacks were also frequent
targets of organized labor. This was especially so under the Railway Labor Act,
which today governs the airline industry in which the Northwest strike is taking
The "Big Four" railroad
brotherhoods (conductors, engineers, firemen and trainmen) kept constitutional
provisions excluding blacks from membership as late as the 1960s. The firemen
engaged in a decades-long campaign to eliminate blacks from their jobs. New Deal
labor legislation added the power of government to their effort. The National
Mediation Board enforced contracts between the brotherhoods and railroads that
stripped blacks of their job rights. The most outrageous of these was the 1941
Washington Agreement, which set a 50 percent maximum quota for black employment,
and was dubbed the "Hitler Agreement" by the black press. "One cannot avoid
receiving the impression that the board regards collective bargaining … as
strictly a white man’s affair," economist Herbert Northrup observed in 1944.
Worse still, Congress had
extended the board’s power in 1936 to the newly emerging airline industry, where
several unions also explicitly barred blacks from membership. "It is likely that
few public policy decisions pertaining to industrial relations have been more
unfortunate," Northrup noted. "It is even more the case insofar as Negro air
transport employment is concerned."
Government power was extended
to other unions by the Wagner Act, and by the refusal of government officials
like Michigan Governor Frank Murphy to enforce court orders against sit-down
strikes. But by this point, blacks had already entered the mass production
industries of steel, auto, meatpacking and rubber, so unions could not exclude
them, though they often discriminated against them in job assignments and
Eventually the federal courts
began to rein in the blatantly discriminatory practices of these unions. But
their decisions usually came too late to stem the decline of black employment.
More effective was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Indeed, to a large extent the
whole development of "affirmative action" in employment grew out of attempts to
remedy the effects of union discrimination.
The mechanics’ strike is
likely to fail precisely because the union cannot control the labor supply.
There are more than enough replacement workers (known as "scabs" or "finks" in
union argot). Qualified out-of-work mechanics earn $27 per hour, compared to the
$36 per hour that the strikers were earning.
Nor can the mechanics union,
known as the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, get other unions or
customers to honor their picket lines. This is partly because the Railway Labor
Act, which empowered the unions, also prohibits "sympathy strikes" — showing that what the
government gives, it can also take away.
Several unions left the
AFL-CIO recently because its president, John Sweeney, is more committed to
spending union dues on political campaigns than on organizing workers. Yet
Sweeney understands what the Northwest strike is now showing: Most unions derive
their power from the government. Legislation prohibiting "right-to-work" laws in
the states, or preventing the use of replacement workers, would do more to spur
unionization than the grass-roots organizing that the insurgent unions have in
But empowering unions would
not help most American workers or consumers, and it never has.
Dr. Paul D. Moreno holds the
Grewcock Chair in the American Constitution at Hillsdale College and is an
adjunct scholar at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and
educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. This essay is based on
research he conducted for his forthcoming book, "Black
Americans and Organized Labor: A New History." Permission to reprint this
commentary in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and
the Center are properly cited.