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Myths of Organized Labor

Do we really need to "thank" unions for the 40 hour week, paid vacation, and health benefits?

by
Ronnie Schreiber

Bio

December 14, 2008 - 1:03 am
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Thank a union member.

That’s what Sam Abuelsamid of Autoblog wants us to do. While rightly debunking the myth of $70/hr autoworkers, Sam waxes prosaic about the debt we all owe organized labor. Paraphrasing the recently departed Studs Terkel, Abuelsamid asks union critics:

Do you like going home from work at 5 o’clock? Do you like having health care benefits? Do you like having paid time off? You may not be in a union, but if you have any of that, you can thank union workers for it. Before unions fought for reasonable workweeks, health care, and workplace safety in the first half of the twentieth century, few Americans had any of that. Don’t kid yourself that big corporations would give you would get any of that from the goodness their hearts.

Terkel was a great storyteller, but most of that is a fairy tale, a foundational myth of organized labor.

The labor movement had little success organizing U.S. industries, particularly the auto industry, until the 1930s. The CIO was founded in 1935, in response to the AFL’s emphasis on skilled craft unionists. While attempts to organize autoworkers date to the industry’s birth, the auto companies were not fully organized until the late 1930s. The legendary UAW Flint sit-down strike and the “Battle of the Rouge Overpass” both took place in 1937.

Meanwhile, labor and auto industry historians say that wages, benefits, and working conditions for American workers had started improving decades earlier.

In 1911, Henry Ford said, “Coming [is] a shorter workday, and so is the daily wage. It will be a daily wage of five dollars, perhaps as much as ten dollars, and maybe more. We are just beginning to get moving in the automobile industry, and the men who build the cars are entitled to better wages and better hours.”

Two years later Ford Motor Co. started an embryonic employee health plan, with company clinics for on the job injuries, employees, and their families. The company health department also placed the many handicapped workers Ford hired in suitable positions and in some cases monitored their health.

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