Utility Worker History
An Informal History of the UWUA
Where then do we stop? The answer of course is “let’s not stop.”
This is an early history of the Utility Workers Union of America. Its not a scholarly dissertation, replete with minute detail and documentation, nor is it intended to be. Instead it is more of a light and airy ride in a free balloon from which we will look down occasionally upon the landscape when something draws our interest, and if we look closely we are bound to see and recognize the faces of some of those who went before and upon whose shoulders the union now stands.
The history of the UWUA is full of bright spots, victories, and a few defeats, and it goes back further than most of us do. This unfortunately creates a problem of appreciation, especially of the early years. How does one recreate the texture of those times? How can we feel now that which was felt then? What was it like to practice unionism in the mid-1930’s? Whether you feel it was more rewarding or less rewarding, more difficult or less difficult than now, it was, in any case, far different from that which you experience today.
Oh, for the Good Old Days!
In those early years, the slenderest of roots of the UWUA could be found embedded in the soil in many parts of the U.S. In New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, California and Ohio, to name only a few locations. It was a time that was not at all friendly to unionization. In fact, quite the contrary. The employers, industrialists, moguls, call them what you wish, were appalled at the thought of an organized work force. Employment at will was the commonest form of contract, which of course was no contract at all. The workman was considered as a kind of raw material from which a product was made. He was paid a meager slice of the profits gained from that which he produced. “Produced” is a key word here. Being sick and unable to work resulted in loss of pay; after all, there was nothing produced. And of course, major illness equated to major non-production and was tantamount to discharge.
Other aspects of the workman’s employment also help to gain insight into his societal position. One did not grieve a work assignment, one accepted it. One did not complain about an unsafe condition, one tried to avoid it. And most certainly, one did not demand a wage increase, one hoped for it. To complain about such conditions was considered rebellious and unforgivable behavior, to join a group protesting conditions was another way of saying “I’m about to look for another job.” To actually lead a protest effort was considered akin to armed assault. Those who did, seldom heard the five o’clock whistle blow. And so it went.
Suffice to say, the workman’s lot was a dreary one. He lived a mere existence and dared not hope for a brighter future. That what you now consider indispensable was then unobtainable. He was truly cast in the role of the raw material that fueled the engine of production. Most frightening of all was that for many years, society found no quarrel with this state of affairs. It was this climate of intimidation, fear, and lack of concern for the employee with which the early union organizers were forced to contend.
I Tell You Martha, ‘The Natives are Getting Restless’
But in the early 1930’s, the winds of change were starting to blow. Society was beginning to suspect that this one-sided employee/employer relationship was not a healthy one. Pressure for some kind of parity began to mount. Pressure that demanded a meaningful change in this industrial relationship.
On June 16, 1933, Section 7(a) of the National Recovery Act became effective amid tremendous acclaim from workers. This section simply said:
This was a bare minimum, but none the less a tremendous advantage. A crescendo of union activity followed the passage of the NRA, and of course it drove the employers crazy. They simply couldn’t abide the loss of their cherished master-servant relationship. They said it would lead to industrial anarchy. It didn’t. They said it would destroy the industrial capacity. It didn’t. They predicted many dire consequences would occur, but they didn’t. In sum, they said it wouldn’t work, but it did. However, one thing they didn’t say was that they were willing to sink to any depth to prevent the law from becoming a reality. They ushered in an era of beatings, goon squads, armed guards, tear gas, shootings, and other genteel forms of combat. It got so bad that it caused Congress, in 1935, to pass a bill sponsored by Senator Robert Wagner, liberal Democrat from New York, which underwrote labor’s right to organize free from intimidation and coercion, and voiced support for collective bargaining as a matter of national policy. This of course was the National Labor Relations Act. Popularly called the “Wagner Act.”
Employers opposed it in Congress and in the courts. They sought to evade it, by-pass it, or refuse, as long as they could, to comply. They took it to the Supreme Court on the basis of its constitutionality and in 1937, in a five to four decision in NLRB vs. Jones and Laughlin, the court said: