Before Wisconsin: Five of American Labor's Biggest Battles

Labor union rally in New Jersey
Labor union rally in New Jersey

Labor unions have an image problem. Once seen as the staunch defender of America's most helpless workers, they've begun to appear bloated and unwieldy a force more bent on robbing the general public than on helping its members. Recently, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie succinctly summarized the general perception of unions, arguing that they are "Trying to break the middle class."

While it's been building for a while, this image problem hit a major milestone in 2009: For the first time in the more than 70 years that Gallup has been measuring the popularity of unions, more than half the public didn't approve of them. So, it isn't hard to see why Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker felt comfortable drawing the line against his state's public employees. And it's hardly surprising that other states began to talk of following suit.

Some governors have since softened their rhetoric about unions, but the Walker-Wisconsin battle seems likely to become a watershed moment in the relationships between state employees and the governments that pay them. With that in mind, here are five other battles that changed the relationship between unions and the rest of the country:

Pullman Cars: The Government Breaks a Strike

In the late 1800s, a brutal depression sent unemployment soaring over 18% as companies slashed wages and fired workers by the thousands. At one company, Pullman Palace Car Co. in Illinois, workers lived in Pullman-owned housing, sent their kids to Pullman-owned schools and bought food in Pullman-owned stores. But when the company cut wages and didn't reduce rents, it left thousands of employees unable to support themselves. Despite repeated requests, George Pullman, the company president, refused to meet with union representatives.

On May 11, 1894, 3,000 Pullman employees went on strike and were soon joined by an estimated 250,000 rail workers across 27 states. As rail traffic west of Chicago ground to a halt, President Grover Cleveland stepped in: Citing the threat to America's mail delivery, he sent 12,000 troops to the Pullman factory to break the strike. Within days, 13 workers were killed, 57 were wounded -- and Pullman's workers were back on the job.

Soon afterward, President Cleveland made Labor Day into a national holiday, but his attempt to soothe the hurt feelings of America's workers didn't work. Facing an angry populace, he decided not to run for a third term and left office in 1897. Later the same year, George Pullman died. Afraid that his body would be desecrated by angry employees, he had himself buried in a solid block of concrete.

1946 Strikes: Returning Servicemen Go to War. . .Against Industry

After World War II ended, millions of returning soldiers discovered that the industrial jobs they were looking forward to came with low wages, dangerous conditions and corrupt bosses. In the year after the war ended, more than 5 million workers responded by going on strike, starting with 268,000 packinghouse workers who walked off the job in January 1946. Within a week, 750,000 steelworkers joined them in the largest single strike in American history. Over the course of the year, workers from General Electric, coal miners, oil workers, Hawaiian sugar workers and the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team all went on strike, and railroad engineers threatened to follow suit.

Alarmed by what it saw as an increasingly radical and uncontrollable labor force, Congress gave President Truman emergency powers to break strikes. In the following year, the lawmakers went one better, passing the Taft-Hartley Act. That law barred several types of strikes and boycotts, limited the types of people who could run unions and paved the way for anti-union legislation in so-called "right to work" states. The bill's greatest impact, however, was that it enabled the president to legally break strikes that "imperiled the national health or safety."

Air Traffic Controllers: The President Fires 11,345 Workers

While private unions are legally allowed to strike, public unions are not. Because of this, the professional air-traffic controllers' organization, PATCO, had to stage slowdowns and "sick-outs" to drive the government to the bargaining table. In 1970, 2,000 controllers called in sick. Although they were later forced to return to work, they were able to negotiate higher salaries, more hirings and the reopening of the national air-traffic training academy.

Eleven years later, PATCO staged a full-fledged strike, demanding higher wages and a shorter work weak. Citing Taft-Hartley, President Ronald Reagan ordered them back to work, but only 10% of the more than 13,000 controllers crossed the picket lines. Two days after the strike began, Reagan fired the striking controllers and barred them from federal service for life. It took almost a decade for air-traffic controller staff numbers to rebound to pre-strike levels. More important, Reagan set a precedent for breaking public union strikes.

1970 Postal Workers Strike: Sometimes the Unions Win

Taft-Hartley aside, it isn't surprising that PATCO thought it could go on strike. Just over a decade earlier, another public union strike had successfully driven the government to the negotiation table. In 1970, citing low wages, hazardous workplace environments and a poorly run organization, U.S. Postal Service workers staged the first national postage strike in U.S. history. Demanding the right to collectively bargain, more than 210,000 became involved.

President Richard Nixon deployed 24,000 members of the military to help move the mail while Labor Secretary William Usery Jr. negotiated with the strikers. Two weeks after the strike began, it was resolved in the union's favor: Post office employees had a new contract and had won the legal right to negotiate. Not long after, the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 was passed, resolving many of their problems with the bureaucratic morass of the Post Office.

Divide and Conquer: Pitting Workers Against Workers

Since the '80s, membership in private sector unions has dwindled from 23% of workers to less than 8%, while public union membership has remained nearly constant at 40% of eligible public employees. Not surprisingly, this has led to a gap between the benefits enjoyed by public and private workers. While outsourcing, right-to-work laws and Taft-Hartley have whittled away at the standard of living for many employees of private companies, public employees have been treading water, continuing to enjoy benefits that were once considered standard but which now seem almost extravagant.

In this context, it's easy to see why public employee unions are getting a bad rap: Once regarded as low paid-workers who traded job security for monetary rewards, teachers and other state employees are now widely regarded as lazy and pampered workers who can't be fired. New Jersey Governor Christie stoked this perception, and pitted teachers against other workers when he said: "There can no longer be two classes of citizens -- one that receives the rich health and pension benefits, and the rest who are left to pay for them."

Governor Christie's rhetoric aside, it's worth noting that the average public union employee makes about 6% less than a comparable worker in the private sector. For that matter, some analysts have argued that public service unions help private sector workers because employers often compete on wages and benefits with union shops in order to discourage union organizing in their companies.

Given that, it's worth asking if erasing the collective bargaining rights of public unions will benefit the middle class -- or eliminate one of the forces that's helping it stay afloat.