The present anti-union climate that has openly manifested itself again in the Republican Party has a long and storied history.
Republicans were virulent in their opposition to the New Deal Wagner Act, which removed legal barriers to labor organization. They supported violent retribution in strikes, such as Dearborn police and Ford Security opening fire on unemployed auto workers, killing sixty. The atmosphere maintained the violent reaction of corporations toward the nascent growth of labor unions since the late 19th century into the 20th.
Ohio attempted to break unions in 1958 with an early “right-to-work” ballot initiative. It failed with a resounding “no” vote of 63.3 percent against and 36.7 percent in favor.
Even then the GOP was extraordinarily tone deaf. For some reason they thought this would pass in Ohio, which had a major presence of union labor in the extensive manufacturing sector. They tried this in a state where the AFL was founded in 1886 and the UMW in 1890, both in Columbus, Ohio. Interestingly, that 1958 vote mirrored the results 53 years later in the SB5 debacle.
We seem to have forgotten the labor battles of the 20th century as those who directly benefit from the hard-won fruits of that war, accepting the decimation of unions as a good thing.
So a small anecdote of those battles may be in order to refresh our memory.
In 1947, AT&T/Bell System forced a strike to break the weak NFTW (Forerunner to the CWA).
Following WWII, after my father was discharged from the Merchant Marine, he went to work for Western Electric, the manufacturing and construction arm of The Bell System.
Dad spent the majority of his time on the road wiring the Central Switching offices across Ohio. In the days when it was landline only these offices were the location for each telephone exchange.
In 1947, Dad was working in the Canton/Akron region for Western Electric/Bell when they went on strike.
Dad was in his 20s, 6’4″, a bit of a brawler and a strong union guy. So the local had him on the front of the picket line helping to keep the scabs from crossing. Six-four was tall and intimidating for the time. Mix that with a temper and dislike for strikebreakers, he was in the right place.
During the days of labor strikes, local police departments basically functioned as the enforcement arm of corporations when they coped with strikes. They beat strikers mercilessly with impunity. In the River Rough Massacre, no one was indicted and they blamed the victim’s bad behavior to justify their being killed. Make no mistake, this was a war waged on workers by business.
This was the atmosphere in Canton as my father was on the picket line.
Violence broke out when scabs tried to cross that line and the strikers fought back. True to form, the police arrested only the union members, including my father.
At the following arraignment, a labor attorney came in to defend the strikers. He noted that it takes two to make a fight. He inquired of police witnesses why the strike breakers weren’t arrested, as they were part of the violence that had the union members in court.
The police could not come up with rational answers. The judge subsequently admonished the police, then dismissed the charges against the strikers.
That attorney was Howard Metzenbaum.
He went on to become a liberal voice in the U.S. Senate for workers, consumers and a champion of the people. As an unabashed liberal he won three terms in the U.S. Senate as one of Ohio’s two Democratic Senators. The other was John Glenn.
Despairingly, Rob Portman now holds that seat. Rather than defend the rights of the people, like Metzenbaum, he’s an anti-labor Republican team player in the Senate Majority.
But it’s not all bad news. Former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland is now running to replace Portman in the U.S. Senate.
As “right-to-work” bubbles under the surface of the Ohio legislative agenda, we need to remember the sacrifices in blood, sweat and tears of the union movement.
They are still our last defense for the Ohio worker. Now, more than ever, they need our support as a force in American life against the traditional Republican lust for their demise.