Don’t Let the Workers Drive the Bus!

I’m currently reading Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right by Richard Kahlenberg and Moshe Marvit. I’m not sure yet what I think about the book but it has some interesting factoids I didn’t know about and would like to share.

1. Many, though not enough, people know that when Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, he had been traveling there in order to support a strike of local sanitation workers. But what’s not widely known—and certainly came as news to me—is that one of the grievances of the workers was that they were not given shower facilities to wash up after their shifts. As a result, bus drivers and passengers would keep them off the buses, and they were forced to walk home.

2. Organized labor reached the height of its power in the decades after World War II.  It also, not coincidentally, reached its highest levels of membership in that era (specifically, 1955). But check this out:

“In the period from 1947 to 1977, workers in the bottom fifth [percentile   quintile] saw pay increase by 116 percent, event faster than those in the top fifth (who saw pay increase by 99 percent).”

3. Like many labor historians and sociologists (as well as union organizers and members), I often contend that the major issue in any union struggle is not pay or benefits but power: who controls the workplace.  But this quote from Wal-Mart CEO Leo Scott was news to me:

We like driving the car and we’re not going to give the steering wheel to anybody but us.

Update (11:30 am)

One other factoid I forgot to mention: The eleven states that are most resistant to unions and have lowest membership rates were all Jim Crow states.


  1. brahmsky August 21, 2012 at 11:12 am | #

    Can you recommend something to read on the problem of permanent “contingent faculty” or the part-tim-ization of higher ed? I know you have a “background” in the TA thing, but I’m wondering about the folks who wind up making an insecure living semester to semester as instructors. On the one hand, one feels sympathy for them and wishes them well (wants to see them compensated properly), yet on the other hand increasing their numbers (or even their stature) dilutes tenure and puts more power in the hands of administrators, while lessening the qualifications understood to be necessary to “profess” a subject (no?). What is to be done?

  2. zenner41 August 21, 2012 at 1:22 pm | #

    The Scott quote is pretty devastating. This kind of forthright statement by these buggers is pretty rare, but when they turn up they should be widely publicized, because they drive home in a very easy-to-understand way what the Lords of the Universe really are after.

  3. Cavoyo August 21, 2012 at 7:25 pm | #

    “One other factoid I forgot to mention: The eleven states that are most resistant to unions and have lowest membership rates were all Jim Crow states.”

    I wonder why that is. There’s the common explanation that racism is used to divide the working class and prevent it from creating large, effective unions. However I think that elite attitudes also play a part. For instance, a rich white Northerner would see the plight of the white Northern working class and think “There but for the grace of God go I,” while a rich white Southerner would see the plight of the darker Southern working class and think “Who cares about them.” There’s also the regional explanation, in that the South’s order was built on slavery and so its elite feels it has a right to cheap, obedient labor, while the Northern elite has more egalitarian values and a Purtian-based noblesse oblige.

    Another factor that may play a part is undocumented labor. The advantages of using undocumented labor extend beyond the lack of a minimum wage and payroll taxes: if undocumented workers start organizing, you can threaten them with deportation in addition to unemployment. Needless to say workplaces with many undocumented workers are impossible to organize. If the South has more undocumented workers relative to the rest of the country that could also explain why its union membership rates are so low.

    • jonnybutter August 21, 2012 at 8:20 pm | #

      The south was not only rural (not industrial) but also really a medieval sort of culture, and still is to some extent. People – white and black – ‘knew their place’ and generally stayed there voluntarily. Imagine someone trying to form a serf’s union in 11th century France – absurd!

  4. Displaced Person August 22, 2012 at 10:07 am | #

    With regard to the current controversy over Akin, Paul Ryan, Romney et al on women’s rights and abortion, may I commend to your attention Nancy L. Cohen’s recent book: “Delirium” – How the Sexual Counterrevolution is Polarizing America. She argues that the groups that make up the ‘sexual counterrevolution’ go back to the Goldwater era and have only become more powerful (after setbacks and tactical changes). Today these groups have a veto over Republicans seeking national office. The issue is not Akin or Ryan, but should be the fact that the candidates have little if any actual discretion on these policy questions – even if they wanted to.

  5. Michael August 22, 2012 at 10:07 am | #

    There was an interesting discussion about the pros and cons of framing labor as a civil right in International Labor and Working Class History last year you might find interesting (or maybe you already read it). The main article was by Joe McCartin, “Probing the Limits of Rights Discourse in the Obama Era: A Crossroads for Labor and Liberalism.”

  6. Bill August 22, 2012 at 12:14 pm | #

    Why is Leo Strauss tagged in this post?

  7. Aliothemage August 22, 2012 at 5:27 pm | #

    The concept of a classless society is one that history has borne out to be false. There has always been and there will always be ruler and ruled, rich and poor, king and subject, oppressor and oppressed. Human nature knows no other way. The extent and methodology used to obtain this status quo may vary from century to century and war to war but the end result remains the same. Consider the conclusions of Friedrich Hayek in The Road To Serfdom, (1944). He argued that social control over wealth and prosperity could not be achieved without reduced prosperity for the general populace and economic freedoms. Since globalization has become the norm rather than the exception we are now seeing Hayek’s argument become reality.
    Basically Libertarianism is the only LOGICAL PHILOSOPHY,if you learn left-wing you don’t understand basic economics and human nature

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