Anniversary Post: Unions and the United Mine Workers

Coal MinersOn this day in 1890, the United Mine Workers was formed when the Knights of Labor Trade Assembly No 135 and the National Progressive Miners Union merged. These were in the days when unions were quire literally illegal. And this is, to some extent why people always associate unions with violence. Labor organizers and members were commonly murdered. So you might wonder why it is that people don’t get more behind unions today. After all, they are legal — just largely legally neutered.

One reason that does not explain why people don’t get behind unions is that things are so great now. They aren’t. Income inequality is as bad as it ever was. The reason that I find most compelling is that people are used to the way it is now. For one thing, the power elite are a whole lot better at getting their message out. But more important: things have gotten worse inch by inch where most people today don’t know that it was ever different.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, people still remembered what it was like to have an agrarian lifestyle. Now that’s not to say that it was great. People were still poor. But I’ve felt that the big issue has never been wealth; the issue is control. And if you look at happiness, what you find is that people get happier the more wealthy they are — but only up to a certain point. And I think this is just because when you are in the upper middle class, you feel like you are in control of our life. (Although as Barbara Ehrenreich documents in Bait and Switch, that’s mostly an illusion.)

Unions have never been primarily about money. They too have been about control. Why did unions push for the minimum wage? It didn’t affect them. They didn’t earn the minimum wage. But it was about providing a sense of control for all workers. It was also about providing a sense of solidarity. And this, above all else, is what the power elite cannot abide. Because the power elite know that if working people band together, the power elite are powerless. And this is why unions must be destroyed.

8 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: Unions and the United Mine Workers

  1. I’ve talked to people who work in fields where there’s some attempts to unionize, and the response is almost always the same. It’s not that they love their employers or have decent salaries (I don’t run in those circles!) but that they fear angry employers could make things worse. And this is almost certainly true. It was true of the UMW. I believe most of the major unions were built by people who’d been pushed so far they almost had no other choice but to unionize.

    Then you have the other side, what you describe, where people who have it OK don’t see the need. And that’s why the right pushes “open shop” and “right-to-work” laws. If people can get a decent job without contributing to the union fighting for their rights, why not free ride?

    It’s always been on odd thing about how the right defines “personal responsibility.” That’s basically an anti-welfare racist code phrase, but it also means “you have no responsibility for how your actions harm others.” It’s quite odd. You would think even conservatives might believe that, “yes, I have no duty to help others, but that’s balanced by my duty to harm no others.” That to me would be true libertarianism (it’s the implicit code of Westerns.) But they don’t believe that in the slightest. It’s more “if my actions harm others, they deserve it for being stupid/weak/vulnerable.”

    • Another issue I hadn’t thought about until just now is that in those days one could also go back to farming. This is something that conservatives really don’t get. When all the property is taken up, people really have no choice. And the only people complaining about the lack of land are rich jerks who have thousands of acres.

  2. It is certainly about control-the owners are okay with the workers being all friendly and family like unless the workers then use that power to demand the owners do something like treat the staff with dignity.

    Yet when the owners do the same thing (US Chamber of Commerce or Manufacturers Association of America or whoever), it is perfectly okay for them to do that. Laudable even. Because it is right that the owners have the power and control, not the workers.

    • It’s like how noble motherhood is when you are rich. When you’re poor, you need the dignity of work and your kids can fend for themselves. But if you are Ann Romney, well, ain’t that noble!

      I know a ridiculous amount about Milton Hershey and as nice as he was to his workers, he hated the idea of them unionizing. It was one thing for him to give them stuff like a king of old. But it was another when they demanded it. Although I studying Hershey for a book about “good guys,” I came to the conclusion that he was a bastard. In fact, I came to that conclusion about everyone I studied, and that’s why I abandoned the book.

      • Or how you are not a terrible person for having five kids when you have money but an irresponsible slut when you don’t have money.

        The funny thing is that I would almost be okay with an employer giving his workers decent pay and treatment without their being a contract in place for it with equal representations on both sides if I didn’t know any history or law. However since I do know that there is a long history of broken promises on the part of management? The pay and benefits should be locked down tight in a contract with heavy legal penalties up to and including prison for the management.

        • Many years ago, I saw 14 Children and Pregnant Again! It was long before Duggar became a household word. But it was clear in that show that they were supported in part by their church. Later, of course, they made big money off the show and everything. But they were in no position to actually have that big a family. But it was okay largely because they were right wing. It amazes me that conservatives make a big deal out of where welfare comes from. If it comes from a church, it comes from me because that church doesn’t pay taxes. But regardless, the decision is the same. It’s like that surfer kid who conservatives hated for admitting that he was using the system that was available to him. When Mitt Romney said the same thing about tax loopholes, that just made him a great American.

          I really do think it is as simple as: if you are a conservative, it is okay; if you are a liberal, it isn’t. This is the idea that Republicans push and the media is too terrified to push back against it.

          • I heard about the Duggers long before their TV family when I first heard about the evil Quiverfull movement. It was appalling to me then and it is now and I am someone who once wanted to have kids.

            I think the acronym is IOKIYAR or in this case IOKIYAC.

            • Basically, it’s okay if you are one of the good people. And conservatives generally have very rigid ideas about who is good and who is not.

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