Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Ronald Reagan's War on Labor
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Amidst the continued outpouring of praise for Ronald Reagan, let's not forget that he was one of the most anti-labor presidents in U.S. history, a role model for the virulently anti-labor George W. Bush.

Republican presidents never have had much regard for unions, which almost invariably have opposed their election. But until Reagan, no GOP president had dared to challenge labor's firm legal standing, gained through Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the mid-1930s.

Reagan's Republican predecessors treated union leaders much as they treated Democratic members of Congress -- as people to be fought with at times, but also as people to be bargained with at other times. But Reagan engaged in precious little bargaining. He waged almost continuous war against organized labor.

He had little apparent reason to fear labor politically, with opinion polls at the time showing that unions were opposed by nearly half of all Americans and that nearly half of those who belonged to the unions had voted for him in 1980 and again in 1984.

Reagan,in any case, was a true ideologue of the anti-labor political right. Yes, he had been president of the Screen Actors Guild, but he was notoriously pro-management, leading the way to a strike-ending agreement in 1959 that greatly weakened the union and finally resigning under membership pressure before his term ended.

Reagan's war on labor began in the summer of 1981, when he fired 13,000 striking air traffic controllers and destroyed their union. As Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson noted, that was "an unambiguous signal that employers need feel little or no obligation to their workers, and employers got that message loud and clear -- illegally firing workers who sought to unionize, replacing permanent employees who could collect benefits with temps who could not, shipping factories and jobs abroad."

Reagan gave dedicated union foes direct control of the federal agencies that were designed originally to protect and further the rights and interests of workers and their unions.

Most important was Reagan's appointment of three management representatives to the five-member National Labor Relations Board which oversees union representation elections and labor-management bargaining, They included NLRB Chairman Donald Dotson, who believed that "unionized labor relations have been the major contributors to the decline and failure of once-healthy industries" and have caused "destruction of individual freedom."

Under Dotson, a House subcommittee found,the board abandoned its legal obligation to promote collective bargaining, in what amounted to "a betrayal of American workers."

The NLRB settled only about half as many complaints of employers' illegal actions as had the board during the previous administration of Democrat Jimmy Carter, and those that were settled upheld employers in three-fourths of the cases. Even under Republican Richard Nixon, employers won only about one-third of the time.

Most of the complaints were against employers who responded to organizing drives by illegally firing union supporters. The employers were well aware that under Reagan the NLRB was taking an average of three years to rule on complaints, and that in any case it generally did no more than order the discharged unionists reinstated with back pay. That's much cheaper than operating under a union contract.

The board stalled as long before acting on petitions from workers seeking union representation elections and stalled for another year or two after such votes before certifying winning unions as the workers' bargaining agents. Under Reagan, too, employers were allowed to permanently replace workers who dared exercise their legal right to strike.

Reagan's Labor Department was as one-sided as the NLRB. It became an anti-labor department, virtually ignoring, for instance, the union-busting consultants who were hired by many employers to fend off unionization. Very few consultants and very few of those who hired them were asked for the financial disclosure statements the law demands. Yet all unions were required to file the statements that the law required of them (and that could be used to advantage by their opponents). And though the department cut its overall budget by more than 10 percent, it increased the budget for such union-busting activities by almost 40 percent.

Union-busting was only one aspect of Reagan's anti-labor policy. He attempted to lower the minimum wage for younger workers, ease the child labor and anti-sweatshop laws, tax fringe benefits, and cut back job training programs for the unemployed. He tried to replace thousands of federal employees with temporary workers who would not have civil service or union protections.

The Reagan administration all but dismantled programs that required affirmative action and other steps against discrimination by federal contractors, and seriously undermined worker safety. It closed one-third of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's field offices, trimmed its staff by more than one-fourth and decreased the number of penalties assessed against employers by almost three-fourths.

Rather than enforce the law, the administration sought "voluntary compliance" from employers on safety matters - and generally didn't get or expect it. The administration had so tilted the job safety laws in favor of employers that union safety experts found them virtually useless.

The same could have been said of all other labor laws in the Reagan era. A statement issued at the time by the presidents of several major unions concluded it would have been more advantageous for those who worked for a living to ignore the laws and return "to the law of the jungle" that prevailed a half-century before.

Their suggestion came a little late. Ronald Reagan had already plunged labor-management relations deep into the jungle.

Copyright Dick Meister