“The End of American Labor Unions” examines roots of anti-unionism

In March, Wisconsin became the 25th so-called ‘Right-to-Work’ state in our country. Coupled with anti-union RTW victories in Michigan and Indiana in 2012 and in Oklahoma in 2001, it seems as if right-wing, anti-worker interests are on the offensive. It had been over twenty years since RTW had scored a state legislative victory, as in Texas – in 1993.

Raymond L. Hogler’s The End Of Labor Unions: The Right-to-Work Movement and the Erosion of Collective Bargaining is an important contribution to our understanding of the historical roots of so-called ‘Right-to-Work,’ its basis in libertarian ideas of individual freedom, and possible strategies organized labor should consider – if it hopes to survive.

Early on Hogler provides political context for differing perspectives on freedom and liberty and how these ideas intersect to shape our understanding of unions. He writes, “Because the problem of right to work rests on the incompatibility of radical individualism and collective security, the skirmishes between supporters and opponents of right to work in the United States are continuing proxy battles in the quest for control over our narrative of freedom, liberty, property, and community.”

Further, Hogler tells us that our foundational definitions of freedom and liberty stem from two very different and unique understandings. Freedom was meant to signify community and brotherhood, while liberty – “in contrast” – signified individualism, personal preference and “an absence of servitude.” And it is from these foundational definitions that the narratives surrounding “union security,” or the closed shop, unfold.

Early in our nation and labor movement’s history, judges, politicians and business owners utilized a “conspiracy doctrine [which] governed American labor relations…” and “hamstrung the activities of American trade unions for more than a century.”

For example, “In the opening phase of conspiracy prosecutions, prosecutors described trade unionism as an illegitimate form of government that tried to usurp the authority of the state, and, as a result of labor’s collective power, members of the community suffered economic injury from the actions of a narrowly self-interested faction.”

According to judges, politicians and business owners, the injury was two-fold. “The first injury was higher prices resulting from the labor monopoly, thereby constituting the ‘unlawful end’ of a conspiracy to raise wages.” The second injury – and here is the ideological basis or today’s RTW campaigns – “arose from the harm to a non-conforming employee who was prevented from working on terms other than those acceptable to the group,” hence the attack on union security clauses, or the closed shop – whereby as a condition of employment all workers pays dues or a representation fee for the cost of bargaining contracts, handling grievances, etc.

Hogler then highlights a number of so-called conspiracy cases in Philadelphia, New York and Pittsburgh, before transitioning into the emergence of the National Labor Recovery Act, the National Labor Relations Board and changes to national labor law born out of the Taft-Harley.

Interestingly, we learn that unions themselves and Robert Wagner – the primary architect of the NLRA and the NLRB, or Wagner Act – were partially responsible for the ambiguous language regarding closed shop provisions.

For example, Wagner justifiably feared the emergence of company unions with a monopoly on worker representation in certain industries, as employer rushed to form their own, acceptable, internal ‘unions,’ welfare associations or athletic clubs. Additionally, the AFL was known for lily white, segregated unions and many labor leaders feared security clauses, or the closed shop, would force them to represent African Americans, immigrants and women, which they were then loath to do.

Further, Wagner had little reason to expect the emergence of so-called states’ rights initiatives whereby right-wing lawmakers and their corporate backers would utilize the state legislative process to undermine federal labor law, as – at this time, 1935 – the law was very explicit regarding labor and interstate commerce. Including provisions in the Wagner Act precluding states from in-acting RTW laws would have been “redundant, because states at the time lacked the power to legislate against closed shops.”

Hogler then shifts gear and talks about the disastrous impact of Taft-Hartley, 1960’s and 70’s era fight-back within labor and the emergence of Regan and the radical right, as well as more recent court decisions pertaining to mandatory dues deductions.

The final chapter deals with the strategic shortcomings of recent AFL-CIO efforts to pass national labor law reform, like the Employee Free Choice Act and possible strategies for winning local ‘just cause’ laws, which would help unions reclaim the narrative around freedom and liberty.

The End Of American Labor Unions is a good little book, packed with insight and analysis. My only mild criticisms are that Hogler did not provide enough political context for the emergence of 1930’s labor law reform and the Wagner Act, a significant victory born of hard struggle, coalition building, grassroots organizing and a vibrant left – like the Communist Party. Similarly, he doesn’t provide context for the emergence of Taft-Hartley and the rightward drift of our nation, as the ‘Red Scare’ and the ‘Cold War’ unfolded against the domestic champions of workers’ rights and democracy.

Minus these mild shortcomings, The End Of American Labor Unions is very much worth the read.

Dr. Raymond L. Hogler is Professor of Labor Law, Labor Relations and Human Resource Management at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. He is active in the Association of American University Professors (AAUP) and has served for a number of years as Vice-President for Legislative Affairs of the Colorado AAUP chapter. Among his accomplishments was drafting a bill passed by the Colorado Legislature in 2012 to allow non-tenure track faculty to enter into binding contracts for a period of years.

The End Of American Labor Unions: The Right-to-Work Movement and the Erosion of Collective Bargaining

By Raymond L. Hogler

Praeger / ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2015, 192 pages

Hardcover and Kindle editions


Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the president of the St. Louis Workers' Education Society, a 501c3 non-profit organization chartered by the St. Louis Central Labor Council as a Workers Center. His articles have been published in the St. Louis Labor Tribune, Alternet, Shelterforce, Political Affairs, and Z-Magazine, among other publications. He is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA," and is available to speak at your community center, union hall or campus.