The Northwest Strike and the Twilight of Organized Labor

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Many observers explain this deterioration by arguing that American unions are out of favor because they no longer represent the interests of most American workers.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.

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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 place.

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 promotions.

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 mind.

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.