It's May Day, a day that commemorates the vast contributions of the labor movement and its continued value. But in truth, strikes — labor's most potent weapon — have been relegated to nostalgia. So few Americans born after 1960 have experienced a strike that labor stoppages are best known through film depictions — as if strikes come with popcorn.
I watched Made in Dagenham on DVD at home recently. The 2010 film is an entertaining portrayal of an all-female industrial workforce striking in 1968 over fair pay at Ford's Dagenham plant in England. Though clearly "sexed up" for the movies, the story is of real people's struggles to better their lives and prospects by banding together. Where did that consciousness go?
Sally Hawkins, a rising British star, is featured as Rita, the unlikely leader of a group of 187 striking women machinists. During their three-week strike, which idled the factory, the women battled management intransigence and entrenched sexism. Their victory eventually led to the introduction of the country's Equal Pay Act of 1970.
Key to the women's success was having the government on their side. A historic stroke of luck put the Labour Party's inimitable Barbara Castle, played by Miranda Richardson, at the helm of the department of employment and productivity. Castle took up the women's cause and negotiated a settlement to the strike which initially brought the women 92 percent of what male machinists made, and ultimately led to parity and changes in law for all women.
What was true then is true today: Government support is key to the ability of workers to secure their fair share of industrial and corporate profits. Republicans work actively against this goal, but even Democrats don't make it enough of a priority.
Labor rights took a relentless beating during the Bush years. A Republican majority on the five-member National Labor Relations Board relished the opportunity to hand defeat to workers and unions. Just as an example, the board decided that "charge" nurses who direct the duties of other nurses but have no real managerial authority count as supervisors and couldn't unionize. It was just an excuse to deny nurses the power that comes with a union and keep them docile. Other broad categories of workers suffered a similar fate.
Strikes — a measure of labor's strength — are now so rare that young people view them as a vestige of another time. Between 1971 and 1980 there were an average of 269 annual major strikes or lockouts involving 1,000 or more workers. Between 2001 and 2010 that number was down to 17. Sports stars are now seen as the only ones with the leverage to strike. It's no longer available to average people just trying to reap a decent reward for hard work — it's too risky.
That's partly due to the widespread willingness of companies to engage in take-no-prisoners union-busting. In his book The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, author Steven Greenhouse quotes a "union avoidance" consultant who says his field is "populated by bullies and built on deceit." "The only way to bust a union," wrote former consultant Martin Jay Levitt, "is to lie, distort, manipulate, threaten, and always, always attack. The law doesn't hamper the process."
More than half of American workers say they want to unionize, but they have little chance against this onslaught. The only bright spot is the newly revived NLRB, which now has four sitting members and a Democratic majority thanks to two recess appointments by President Barack Obama. Finally, enforcement of labor laws will be worker-friendly again.
The labor board's top lawyer, Lafe Solomon, is making a welcome splash by moving aggressively to file high-profile cases, including one against Boeing claiming that the company illegally retaliated against union workers for past strikes by moving some production from a unionized plant in Washington state to a nonunion one in South Carolina.
But a labor-leaning NLRB, while important, is not enough. Obama and the Democrats have to understand that renewing the prospects for unions and workers is the most important contribution they can make to America's well-being. Otherwise, feel-good worker stories will only be found in the movies.