Kurt Meyer writes a weekly column for the Nora Springs – Rockford Register and the Substack newsletter Showing Up, where this essay first appeared. He serves as chair of the executive committee (the equivalent of board chair) of Americans for Democratic Action, America’s most experienced liberal organization.
In the spring of 1972, Dad brought a college scholarship application home from work, funds made available through his Hormel union, then the “Amalgamated Meat Cutters & Butcher Workmen of North America,” now the less muscular sounding “United Food & Commercial Workers.” Applicants were required to take a proctored test about the history of the U.S. labor movement. Highest scores would be rewarded at several levels: $1,000 for first, maybe two at $500, probably several at $250.
Instructions included reading a particular book, something like “Mileposts in Labor History.” So, I’ll read the book, take the test, and win the money, ha. As I recall, I had a few days to make this happen, and eagerly swung by the high school library. Not surprisingly, the book was not part of the collection, nor was it in the town library. I did find several relevant volumes, however, one with more photos than narrative (Eugene V. Debs displaying anguish), a Samuel Gompers biography, and a history book with a Haymarket Square chapter.
I prepared as best I could and took the test monitored by the school librarian. Mailing back my answers, I anticipated learning soon about money coming my way. Suffice to say, I never heard back. Not even honorable mention. Oh well… worth a try.
Yet, by today’s perspective, I won, for this exercise implanted a durable kernel of interest. Based on this modest investment of time and effort, I likely knew more about the history of the labor movement than my 100+ classmates. Evidently, students with access to the suggested book knew even more.
Since this test, I’ve tracked loosely on the history of the labor movement: Pullman, Homestead, and sit-down strikes; the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and the Fair Labor Standards Act; Gompers, Reuther, and Chávez. A rich history, notable wins and losses, tragically numerous deaths. I’m not an expert by any stretch, but am positively inclined toward organized labor, standing (or writing) periodically atop my small soapbox, advocating in favor of unions.
My Hubert Humphrey poster quotes HHH as saying, “The history of the labor movement needs to be taught in every school in this land. America is a living testimonial to what free men and women, organized in free democratic trade unions can do to make a better life.” Part of my living testimonial: labor unions enabled workers—including members of my immediate and extended family—to gain higher wages, more reasonable hours, safer conditions, health benefits, and financial support when injured or retired.
Sadly, labor history is generally not part of public education today, though some exceptions undoubtedly exist. Perhaps related, recent decades have not been kind to organized labor. For example, 1954, my birth year, the percentage of workers belonging to a union peaked in the U.S. at 35 percent. Today? Just 8 percent. Despite this dark trend (unrelated to my birth!), I detect optimistic sunbeams.
First, whether coming from Hollywood, autoworkers, or elsewhere, the success of unions has been a front-page story of late. And yes, success breeds success. Second, broad public support. For instance, a nationwide Gallup poll taken prior to their settlement indicated three-fourths of Americans sided with United Auto Workers over the car manufacturers. Third, the same poll found an uptick in the belief unions will grow stronger than they are currently, 34 percent now versus 19 percent five years ago.
Fourth, according to Benjamin Sachs, a Harvard Law School Professor of Labor & Industry,
support for unions is at its highest point in recent history and is especially high among young workers. I think a lot of youth and youthful energy is fueling the massive increase in organizing among graduate students, among young doctors, and just in the differential rates of support for unionization among age groups. There is a generational shift in the labor force that’s carrying with it the generational shift in approval for unions.
Fifth and finally, Professor Sachs again: “The courage and resiliency of union members, workers who are trying to form unions, and workers who are striking, gives me a kind of optimism that I haven’t had in years. […] we may be starting to see transformative change, both in the labor movement, and as a result of that change, in our economy and our politics more broadly.”
Transformative change? We’ll see. It’s worth watching.