Union Membership, Free Labor, and the Legacy of Slavery.

I was just looking at an NPR piece on 50 Years Of Shrinking Union Membership, In One Map. It reminds me of a number of things.

I’ve made some correlations previously by looking at various mapped data. Where union membership has been historically strong and remained the strongest are where there has been high concentration of certain ancestral ethnicities. Two I’ve noted are German and Irish, which I relates to their higher rates of Catholicism and the attendant more community-oriented worldview.

I’ve often thought much about the Scots-Irish. Their influence can seem immense for various reasons, but it is hard to pinpoint what exactly is that influence. Some of the most violent organized labor strikes have been in Appalachia, the American cultural homeland of those with Scots-Irish ancestry. There is a militant fierceness to Scots-Irish culture of honor that can apply just as equally to vigilantism, family feuds, military enlistment, and labor activism.

It’s easy to forget, though, that those of Scots-Irish ancestry didn’t only settle in and become concentrated in Appalachia. All across the country, there is much overlap between their concentration and higher union membership rates.

This brings me to the forgotten connection between the Upper South and the Lower Midwest. Both regions have high union membership. I want to make a further connection, though. This is also the dual region of Abraham Lincoln’s upbringing. He spent his early life divided between Kentucky, Southern Indiana, and Illinois. The latter state, in particular, has become associated with Lincoln and is the heart of American union membership (which naturally brings to mind the words of Lincoln when he said, “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”).

This land of Lincoln was the contested region of American identity. It’s the border region of the Civil War. And nothing symbolizes that conflict more than slavery.

What stood out to me in NPR’s union membership map is this. The states that have had the lowest union membership rates, unsurprisingly, are those that had the highest enslaved human rates. The one state that has almost always had the lowest union membership rates is South Carolina, a place that for most of its history included a black majority.

It is predictable that the states with a history of disenfranchising blacks also have a history of disenfranchising whites. In general, those are highly unequal class-based societies where poverty rates are high and most people are disenfranchised. This doesn’t just impact the poor, but the entire society or community and the entire economy.

In a previous post, I quoted Nicholas Kristoff from his article, When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 4:

“Indeed, a wave of research over the last 20 years has documented the lingering effects of slavery in the United States and South America alike. For example, counties in America that had a higher proportion of slaves in 1860 are still more unequal today, according to a scholarly paper published in 2010. The authors called this a “persistent effect of slavery.”

“One reason seems to be that areas with slave labor were ruled for the benefit of elite plantation owners. Public schools, libraries and legal institutions lagged, holding back working-class whites as well as blacks.”

Union membership is just an indicator of the inequality that is present. It is also an indicator of a healthy, well-functioning social democracy. There is only ever freedom to the degree there is equality. Even the good life for the wealthiest is less good in a high inequality society, because the social problems caused can never be contained. They effect everyone. And those social problems are immense and diverse, from rising murder rates to worsening health issues, all of which also increase during Republican administrations when conservative polices set the tone for the nation.

Slavery is just an extreme form of inequality. Cultures and political systems don’t change quickly. We will be living with the consequences of slavery for a long time. The opposite of slavery is free labor which means workers who have greater control over their own lives. The labor movement is in essence a fight against the legacy of a country built on oppression. Class war has been continuously going on since the colonial era. It’s a class war that has mostly been waged by the wealthy and they have won most of the battles, but not all of them. Labor unions, for all their problems and limitations, are far better than the alternative in power at the moment.

We need to keep this in mind, at a time in our history when more blacks are in prison than were in slavery right before the Civil War and when mass incarceration is increasingly being used as a new form of forced labor. This is the context in which to understand dropping union membership rates, as poverty, inequality, and unemployment grows.

11 thoughts on “Union Membership, Free Labor, and the Legacy of Slavery.

  1. There are times I have wondered if people are too apathetic to understand why unions are needed.

    Two distinct problems:
    1. General apathy
    2. Greed of the very rich

    Throw them together and you have a recipe for disaster.

    • One issue is that we have a society-wide set of problems. Even unions can only do so much. We can’t appreciate why unions are an important part of the solution because we can’t grasp how massive are the problems. We need every tool we have to deal with what we are facing. Unions are just one among many tools in the toolbox of reform… or, failing that, hopefully peaceful revolution.

      Labor organizing is also greater than unions. We really need to take back labor organizing from unions in the same way we need to take back the political process from special interests. Unions can only at best be an expression of labor organizing, but even they can be dangerous when they replace labor organizing… just as when Washington partisan politics takes over democratic organizing.

  2. Another problem is that government policy is simply not oriented to improving the livelihood of most people. It is oriented to worsening the status quo and transferring the money to the plutocrats.

    It is because of the corporate money and some super rich like the Kochs, but also right-wing ideologues.

    I think that the lack of civic engagement might be a problem too, perhaps deliberately caused by the rich.

    Another possibility is that inequality has a snowball effect. It is heavily correlated with a lot of bad things. As inequality grows, the negative effects will grow too.

    The problem is that at heart, political conservativism has always been about creating an aristocracy that dominates society. The other is that authoritarianism is a part of human nature. I think that there is no easy cure for this problem.

    • It’s inertia. Increasing rates of ever worsening problems tend to lead to more problems. Increasing rates of ever improving public good tends to lead to more public good. But many societies show that trends can reverse, in either direction. That is what I’m interested in. Many societies that seem great now weren’t always among the best societies in the world. We should learn how they managed to change.

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