A Union View Of The Last Century

By Stanley F. Slupik, NWIAL President



With all the talk of the new millennium, and all the lists of the greatest whatever of the last century, the media has been, as usual, completely silent about the progress of unions in this century. As a person who believes in the union movement, I thought it necessary that our members realize what has happened in the 20th century, from a union point of view.

Recently, we had a great orator speak to some of our union members, at our human relations seminar. He was the Congressman from the 7th district of Illinois, Danny Davis. We reprinted his speech in the last Local Line. One of the things he said was that, “Many young people are growing up without recognizing that had it not been for organized labor, many of us who experience what we call ‘middle class’ living, would basically be an involuntary servant or living under a system of semi-peonage.” There is much to be learned from history; those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.

If you go back over the past thousand years, which I am not going to do, you see a long history of the world. This history shows that the world has almost always been made up of the very rich and the starving poor, of nobleman and serf, of master and slave of the haves and the have-nots, of the millionaire and homeless, etc. In the history of the world, up until the beginning of this century, there has never been a middle class. There had always been only a very few ruling over the large masses of people, and these very few controlled the money, the government and the military. The history of the world up until this century began, is a sad story of human misery, suffering and poverty.


The Way It Was

            At the beginning of this century, life for most people was markedly different from the way it is now. If you were not born rich, you faced the following life:

1.      You were working from the age of six. There were no child labor laws. There was no free public education.

2.      You worked 18 hours a day. The eight hour workday was unheard of, and only a dream of the first few unions that were being formed.

3.      You have no days off. Some of the first unions in factories asked for Sunday to be a day of rest, for church and family. The bosses would put up signs that said, “If you don’t come to work Sunday, don’t come Monday.” In other words, if you took off work on Sunday, you were fired.

4.      There was no overtime. There was no limit to hours worked in a week.

5.      There was no minimum wage law.

6.      In many jobs, you weren’t even paid United States money; you were paid in company script. You could only use this company money in company stores, where the prices were very high. You ended up owing the company money, after buying food and clothing for your family. Remember the words of the song, “I owe my soul to the company store”.

7.      Unions were only in their infancy. Unions were called a Communist plot to overthrow the government. Unions were called a “conspiracy” to overthrow the government; union members were called traitors to their country. The company owners had the government bring out the military and the national guard to shoot at strikers and demonstrators.

8.      Since there were no unions, there was no recourse if you were fired. If the boss didn’t like you, you were fired, and that was it. There was no dignity on the job. You had to endure whatever the boss gave out.


“Many young people are growing up without recognizing that bad it not been for organized labor, many of us who experience what we call ‘middle-class’ living, would basically be an involuntary servant or living under a system of semi-peonage”.

---Danny Davis



9.      If you were out of a job, there was no unemployment insurance.

10.  There was no lay-off protection.

11.  There was no social security. There was no insurance for an on-the-job injury.

12.  There were no laws about unsafe workplaces or unsafe jobs. Jobs were highly unsafe; workers breathed coal dust, lost fingers and hands, inhaled chemical fumes, etc.


The Earth-Shattering Change

            But then look at what happened in this century. Look at the difference there is now. And it happened because the people came together to form unions. It was not easy. There was much suffering and bloodshed, strikes, sit-ins, marches and protests, and a lot of sweat and hard work. Many lives were lost, but by standing together, and with strong-willed determinations, unions eventually were formed. It was brought about when the people realized that there were two kinds of power in the world – money power and PEOPLE POWER, and when the people came TOGETHER, they had the power to take what was theirs, from the very rich, greedy and ruthless.

            Standing together, the people brought about changes in the social structure that had existed since the beginning of the world. There came about a “middle class” of people who, though not fabulously wealthy, were not helplessly poor or starving. The whole world was changed.

            Slowly, unions were accepted by the public in the United States. People didn’t buy the corporation arguments that union members were communists or traitors. They saw unions as a necessary counter-balancing force against the rich and the powerful. Eventually, in 1935, the Wagner Act was passed. It has since become known as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This law states that people have the right to join unions, and to form unions, and cannot be disciplined for exercising their grievance rights.

            When President Roosevelt signed this law, the rich people objected. They protested to the Supreme Court that the NLRA was unconstitutional, because “everyone knew” that unions were a communist conspiracy by traitors to overthrow the U.S. government. The Supreme Court heard the case, and voted on it. The vote was 5 to 4, the narrowest of margins, that the NLRA was constitutional. The majority opinion went on to say that unions were in fact good for the country, because they provided a civil way to resolve the inevitable workplace disputes that arise. The use of the grievance procedure, and a hearing in impartial binding arbitration, is far preferable to violence in the workplace.

            After the NLRA was passed in 1935, the union movement was largely responsible for many other laws that soon came about. These are laws that we now seem to take for granted; important laws that we don’t often realize the importance of.

            In the next five years after 1935, laws were passed that provided for social security, unemployment insurance, free public education, low-cost public housing, a prohibition of child labor, overtime (time and one-half) pay after 40 hours, etc. None of this came easily. For example, in 1938, a minimum wage law was proposed in Congress. The rich and the corporations argued that the hourly amount that was proposed would cause them all to go broke. The law passed anyway. The corporations did not go broke. The first minimum wage was 25 cents per hour.

            Eventually, other progressive laws were passed with the full support of the union movement, such as the Civil Rights Act, the American With Disabilities Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act. All of these laws provided great benefits to the average working person who was not born rich. Other countries in Western Europe have even more beneficial national laws, such as guaranteed paid maternity and paternity leave, guaranteed paid vacations in every job, and national health insurance.

            John F. Kennedy put it this way: “The American Labor Movement has consistently demonstrated its devotion to the public interest. It is, and has been, good for all America.” Lyndon Johnson said, “The AFL-CIO has done more good for more people than any other group in America in its legislative efforts . . .”


How The Union Helped the Postal Worker

Postal workers were not represented by a union until the strike of 1970.

1.      Before we had unions, postal workers (level 5) made a starting salary of $2.76. Now level 5 starts at $13.72.

2.      Probation was one year long. Now it is 90 days.

3.      There was no overtime pay. The Fair Labor Standard Act, passed in 1938, made it a national law that in any job, an employee would be paid at the time and one-half rate for all hours worked over 40 in a week. However, the law said this would apply to all jobs “except postal and federal employees”. Postal workers did not get paid such overtime until we had a union and negotiated a contract. Now we have overtime and double-time.

4.      There was no Sunday premium pay. Now we are paid 25% extra for Sunday hours.

5.      There were no cost-of-living pay raises. Since we’re had a union, we’ve had two COLA raises every year.

6.      Pay increases came only if Congress passed a law, and it did not happen often. Since we’ve had a union, we’ve had raises every year.

7.      Before we had a union, it took 21 years to get to the top step. Now, for level 5, it takes less than 10 ˝ years.

8.      Without a union, there were no bid jobs. Friends of supervisors worked whenever and wherever they wanted. With the union, preferred jobs are granted by seniority.

9.      There used to be only seven holidays and now there are ten.

10.  There were no guaranteed work hours. Even if you were full-time, you could be called into work, and sent home when you got there if mail volume was low. Now, full-time employees are guaranteed eight hours per day, and 40 hours pay per week.

11.  There was no layoff protection. With the union, employees with six years seniority have a guaranteed no layoff for life.

12.  There was no binding grievance procedure. Employees could be disciplined or fired at management’s whim. Now we have a grievance procedure with binding impartial arbitration, where any disciplinary action can be overturned.


“The American Labor Movement has consistently demonstrated its devotion to the public interest. It is, and has been, good for all America.”

                                                                                                      ---John F. Kennedy


13.  Before we had a union, any benefits we had could be changed, reduced, or taken away by management, whenever they wanted. Now, we have a legally binding contract, negotiated by our union, where our rights cannot be legally taken away or reduced.

14.  Before we had a union, we had no real rights in the workplace. With a union, we have dignity on the jobs.


       As you can see, the union has made a real difference to postal workers on the job. When this century began, postal workers had none of these rights.


Where Are We Going?

            In the latter half of the 20th century, the rich and the corporations mounted an aggressive attack on unions. Through years of subtle brainwashing, by rewriting school textbooks (eliminating labor history), by portraying union organizers in movies and TV as dishonest thugs, and by unrelenting attacks in the newspapers, the rich and powerful have successfully convinced a great number of people that unions are evil and unnecessary.

            They have moved good paying union jobs from this country, to non-union semi-slave labor areas in other countries, while continuing to sell the product at the same or higher cost. They have made every attempt to change laws to take away union rights. They have successfully reduced the number of jobs represented by unions, from a high of 36% in 1954, to the present 16%.


“The AFL-CIO has done more good for more people than any other group in America in its legislative efforts.”

---Lyndon Johnson


Many union members have forgotten, or have not learned, or no longer realize, how life was for the average working person before there were no unions. Many take for granted the benefits that our ancestors gave their lives for.

            In the United States today, only 50% of us vote in presidential elections, and only 30% in off-year elections. Many of us who do vote do so for the wrong reasons, such as which candidate is prettier, or wittier, or who stands what way on a relatively unimportant single issue, or some of us vote based on the candidate’s color, sex, national origin, or what part of the country she/he comes from.

            Some of us choose not to belong to our union. Some give reasons for withdrawing from their union such as, “My steward did not speak to me today”, or “One of the union officers does not smile enough”, or “one time the union mishandled my grievance.”

            We need to wake up and get serious. Our lives and our livelihoods are at stake here. The rich and powerful are actively trying to take away our rights. We should all belong to our union. To quote Franklin Roosevelt, “If I were a worker in a factory, the first thing I would do would be to join a union.” Or as I like to put it, “Any postal worker who is not a union member is a damn fool.”


            “If I were a worker in a factory, the first thing I would do would be to join a union.”

                                                                                                          ---Franklin Roosevelt


            The union is not just about who your current steward is, or who your current local officers are. It is much, much more than that. When you are a union member, you are part of a great movement that has changed the world. The union is your only chance to improve the world, and to bring economic justice to your fellow humans. Union membership must not be taken for granted, or tossed away in a fit of temper. We simply must stick together, or we are all doomed; not only ourselves, but our children and our grandchildren.

            In this century, the average working person, who was not born rich, has made greater progress in his/her quality of life, than in all the previous centuries combined.


            “Any postal worker who is not a union member is a damn fool.”

                                                                                                                ---Stanley Slupik



Don’t just throw it all away. If you are an American citizen, vote, and vote intelligently. If there is a union in your workplace, be an active member. Get involved in the great struggle for human rights.