The American labor movement has been in radical decline for at least three decades, ever since Ronald Reagan used his presidential power to achieve the Republican goal of busting the air traffic controllers' unions in the early 1980s. Since then, unions have staggered, losing more members as their core sectors disappeared along with the country's manufacturing industries. Now, however, a breath of fresh air is blowing through labor halls as unions join the diverse interests in the global Occupy movement.
It's not hard to remember the heyday of the unions, nor the reason they came to be. When corporate bosses ground down workers who were literally dying to make a living, individuals had virtually no chance to stand up for their rights, protect their health, receive a decent wage or challenge an unjust job termination.
When those same workers banded together, the picture changed. Like a bundle of arrows, they could not be broken, despite the vicious methods used by bosses to harangue, intimidate and even kill union leaders.
Butte saw some of the bloodiest union battles ever fought. When the Copper Kings sent the miners down in the hole, their concern was getting out the ore, not the number of working men lost to mine accidents, fires or the slow but grueling suffocation of silicosis. When the unions stood up in solidarity for their human and worker rights, for fair wages and against being used like disposable beasts of burden, the goons were set loose.
Despite the beatings, harassment by law enforcement officers working at the behest of the Copper Kings and even the infamous hanging of Frank H. Little, a board member of the Industrial Workers of the World, from a Milwaukee railroad trestle, the unions eventually succeeded. They held onto those victories for most of a century until ARCO bought out the Anaconda Co. and shut down the mine and smelter.
It was not just corporate power that hastened the decline of America's once-mighty unions. Two other factors played enormous roles. First, the unions came to be identified closely with the Democratic Party. While the Republicans never were the champions of organized labor, the Democrats gladly espoused union goals when the unions were strong and could turn out thousands of people for political rallies, ensuring that contributions to the Dems would flow from the pockets of union members.
But with the decline of union members and power, the Democrats pulled the unions further and further toward the middle as the party itself scuttled to the right. The mantra changed from "union strong" to "we need the undecided voters." In their attempt to garner more corporate campaign dollars, the Democrats began to support union concessions rather than being the steadfast political allies of working people.
In the face of this increasingly union-hostile environment, the union leaders, too, began to turn from their members. Faced with the threat of shut-downs, union leaders went to bat for corporations, agreeing to wage freezes, benefit reductions, increases in worker contributions to pension plans and a host of other concessions.
In Montana, the once strong "blue-green" coalition of union workers and environmentalists fractured as corporations increasingly blamed those concerned with a clean environment for shutdowns and closures. Perhaps the most blatant example was ARCO blaming the shutdown of the Anaconda smelter on environmental regulations when the company had a standing 10-year exemption from the air quality standards any similar industry would have to meet. It was bogus, but the divide-and-conquer strategy worked.
Tragically, for both unions and the environment, the strategy continues to work and now pits organized labor against environmental concerns at every juncture. The highest-level example is the Keystone XL Pipeline decision now facing the Obama administration. Union bosses are leaning on the president to approve the Canadian-owned pipeline, claiming it will create thousands of jobs for their members. Meanwhile, environmentalists nationwide—and there are millions—may well walk away from Obama's re-election effort if he gives the nod to a project that is widely held to be a serious, long-term threat to the environment and may well provide refined petroleum products not for domestic consumption and energy security as advertised, but simply for the highest profit obtainable from export markets.
Taken for granted by Democrats and pitted against their natural allies in the environment, unions floundered and continued to decline. The strongest unions in Montana now are no longer in the private sector, but in government. They are our teachers and the people who plow our roads, provide necessary services to the aged and infirm and run our municipal water, sewer and solid waste facilities. And now the Republicans and their corporate allies are turning their sights on government, the last stronghold of organized labor, in their attempt to eradicate worker solidarity forever.
So organized labor finds itself shoulder to shoulder with the Occupy movement, which is facing those who threaten the unions' very existence in order to squeeze yet more profit. Only this time, the unions cannot be co-opted by the Democrats, because the Occupy movement is politically independent. There are no bosses to cut deals in smoke-filled back rooms, no votes to rig, no thugs to threaten them.
The Occupy movement defies definition in modern American politics. Yet through it, labor has once again found its legs and its strength and is contributing both to the struggle. Standing together with our union brothers and sisters, a better and more equitable future may yet be ours.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at firstname.lastname@example.org.