Plutocracy V: Subterranean Fire
Directed by Scott Noble (2017)
This documentary provides a comprehensive labor history of the United States, involving the most violent history of union repression in the world.
Largely owing to inhuman pay and working conditions, American workers first attempted to organization soon after the birth of large scale industrialization in the US. Prior to the passage of Roosevelt’s National Labor Relations Act, most worker strikes were suppressed violently by the National Guard, the US Army or private armies hired by factory owners.
The initial era of radical unionizing (1870-1914) abated with World War I and brutal government repression via the Red Scare and Palmer Raids. (1) Despite massive profits Wall Street businesses amassed during the so-called “Roaring” Twenties, more than 60% of US families were earning less than $2,000 a year (with $2,500 the minimum income necessary for a family four).
With the 1929 Wall Street crash came the Great Depression. Unemployment surged to 25% and skyrocketing poverty led to a resurgence in union organizing and strikes. Pay cuts and worsening working conditions would give rise to the “sit down” strike, in which striking workers occupied their factories. Loathe to damage their valuable machinery, employers refrained from launching violent attacks on sit down strikes. In this way workers at many companies (including GM, Chrysler and Ford) won the right to form unions.
In 1935, John L Lewis formed the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO), which unlike the American Federation Labor (which only represented skilled workers), represented all industrial workers regardless of sex, race or national origin.
The same year Roosevelt, courting the union vote in the 1936 election, introduced the National Labor Relations Act. The Act gave all Americans (except for domestic and agricultural workers) the right to unionize.
A typical politician, following reelection, Roosevelt ordered the FBI to “monitor” radical unions and other groups, including the CIO, United Auto Workers, United Mine Workers and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP).
With the approach of World War II, federal forces of repression overtly suppressed union organizing, via the Smith Act (2), and the formation (in 1938) of the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In 1939, the US Supreme Court would declare sit-down strikes illegal.
Following World War II, the 1947 Taft Hartley Act (4) would deal the single biggest blow to trade unionism in the US. This law. combined with fanatical anti-communist hysteria promoted by HUAC (3), the CIA, the US State Department and the mainstream media would lead to top down trade union organizing that discouraged strike action in favor of a bloated trade union bureaucracy and sweetheart (5) deals with management.
The end result would be one of the lowest levels of union representation in the developed world.
(1) The Red Scare was a campaign of anti-radical hysteria launched under Woodrow Wilson. Its goal was to promote the irrational fear that a Bolshevik revolution was imminent in the US. The Palmer Raids were a series of raids the Wilson administration conducted between November 1919 and January 1920 under to arrest suspected leftists, mostly Italian immigrants and Eastern European immigrants, and deport them (without trial).
(2) Passed in 1940, the Smith Act set down criminal penalties for advocating the overthrow of the US government. The Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional (for violating the First Amendment) in 1957.
(3) The Taft Hartley Act banned wildcat strikes, solidarity or political strikes, closed shops, union donations for political purposes and the election of communists and other radicals to union leadership. It also permitted states to pass Right To Work laws (under right to laws, there is a ban on union contracts forcing non-union members to contribute to the costs of union representation).
(4) Although Hollywood celebrities received the most publicity when they were subpoenaed for being suspected communists, most of the individuals summoned before HUAC were union organizers.
(5) A sweetheart contract is a contractual agreement inappropriately advantages some parties over others. The term was coined in the 1940s to describe corrupt labor contracts unduly favorable to the employer. They usually involved some kind of kickback or special treatment for the labor negotiator.