Union History’s Other Side

, Charles G. Mills, Leave a comment

GLEN COVE, NY — Some believe that the recent Brown Shirt tactics of the public employee unions in Wisconsin and the unfair labor practice charges against Boeing for daring to open a plant in a Right-to-Work state are the last desperate gasp of a dying union movement. Others believe that these tactics are manifestations of union boldness encouraged by a White House under the thumb of labor bosses.

Although both propositions hold some truth, both miss a more important point: Violence and coercion are at the heart of the union movement. The late Professor Sylvester Petro of New York University Law School demonstrated beyond doubt that unions cannot succeed unless they use either violence or government cooperation to round up members.

Over a hundred years ago, two charges were levied against the earliest unions: They were a conspiracy to use violence against non-union workers, and they were a conspiracy to prevent non-union workers from contracting with their employers to work. The unions emphasized only the second of these and won a Congressional prohibition on injunctions against strikes. This victory, however, effectively prevented all labor injunctions, even those against beating up strike breakers.

The early unions were built around particular skills, such as those of cordwinders, teamsters, carpenters, steamfitters, and electricians. Industrial unions did not emerge for another generation or two. These were unions of all workers, skilled and unskilled, in a particular factory or industry.


The Wagner Act was passed in the 1930s. This legislation forced employers in a unionized workplace to bargain with any union representing a majority of the workers and not to bargain at all with the non-union workers. It also outlawed many legitimate ways of discouraging unions. Eventually, many states passed laws prohibiting forced union contracts that sought to compel workers to join the union. These states are the Right-to-Work states.

Workers join unions for many reasons. The three most common are that they are afraid not to join; they cannot get a job unless they join; and they really believe union workers make more money. Fewer and fewer workers today believe this last reason, for they see that non-union employers can afford to pay higher wages than the union wages net of union dues. Other reasons are that they come from union families; they enjoy engaging in mass violence that will not be punished; they hope to become union bosses; and they believe that the union will help them when they need it.

Many or most workers, however, have no particular reason to join a union other than fear. Union power, therefore, depends on the ability of union goons to get new members, or on the ability of the union and government in concert to persuade employers to hire only union members. Union success, in the long run, depends on a combination of government coercion and goon violence.

Unions are, themselves, big business. Employers deduct the union dues from the workers’ pay and turn them over to the union. The dues are far higher than the dues the workers pay to any other organization to which they belong. The union bosses do not account well for what they do with the money. Much of it is used to encourage laws that will consolidate their power.

Traditionally, the unionization of government employees was not attempted. The possible conflict between duty to public safety and duty to union action was too apparent. President Coolidge broke the Boston police strike. President Reagan broke the air traffic controllers’ strike. In contrast, New York City has seen far too many transit strikes, garbage strikes, and similar strikes.
American industrial workers eventually realized that they could make more money without a union, and the proportion of these workers in unions dropped to a small fraction. Furthermore, highly unionized industries, such as the Detroit automotive industry, were so damaged by unions that they increasingly moved more operations to Right-to-Work states.

As unions lost their industrial base, they developed a new model. They maximized their control over school boards and over village, city, town, and county governments. They unionized the employees of these bodies, and they negotiated contracts with their pawns that paid public sector workers salaries far out of proportion to those of their private counterparts.

When people began seeing $300,000 salaries for middle-level municipal employees, they rebelled. Unions began losing their role in bargaining for municipal and school district salaries. They returned to the traditional backbone of organized labor — the goons. We saw the goons acting like Brown Shirts in the Wisconsin legislature, trying to substitute mob rule for parliamentary decorum.

If the unions lose this last ditch battle — and it appears they will — they will eventually lose their privileged place in American society. With the likely exceptions of Detroit and New York City, they will have to play by the same non-violent rules as everyone else.




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Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation,www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved.