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What The History of a Union That Died Can Teach Us About the UAW Strike

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It’s said in military history that generals and the leaders of countries always fight the last war. Why? Because that’s what they know and are familiar with. But, this mistake can be fatal, because the next war a country has to fight might come with very different challenges. Being ready for the last war instead of the current one might mean getting caught with your pants down, the way the French did early in World War II.

In this article, I want to tell the story of a union that died decades ago after a long and successful run. Despite being an innovative and even world-changing organization, their habit of being ahead of the curve eventually led them into an unfamiliar landscape that no union really knows how to fight in, even today. But, that doesn’t mean that the history of unions can’t give us some clues about how to handle it.

The Last War Unions Fought

One thing I don’t want you to take away from this article is “Unions bad,” because no serious student of history can really walk away with that idea. I’m also not going to tell readers that unions are perfect, either, because they clearly aren’t. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in the middle.

Today, many people think about unions in terms only of pay and benefits. The company wants to pay less, while workers want to earn more, so the workers team up to have more bargaining power in those negotiations. Using tactics like strikes, work-t0-rule, and public relations, unions can and often do get better pay and benefits.

But, looking back further in history, unions were clearly about a lot more than just getting a better paycheck and a dental plan. In the late 19th and early 20th century, companies would sometimes operate like totalitarian regimes, forcing or pressuring workers to live in company-owned towns where every aspect of the workers’ lives was controlled.

They also had “company stores” that would exploit workers with debt, high prices, and other exploitative practices, leading to songs like Sixteen Tons (“Saint Peter, don’t you call me, ‘cuz I can’t go. I owe my soul to the company store.”)

So, in many cases, unions have historically not only fought for better pay, but against legal forms of slavery and totalitarianism that observers of the day would sometimes call un-American.

My grandfather was a union man from the 1950s to the 1970s, and one thing he told me was that, “A strike is a war.” This might sound like hyperbole, but it’s sometimes the literal truth, even today.

In the decades before my grandfather’s career in typesetting, there were all-out wars, complete with battlefields, machine guns, and mass murder. One good example of this is the West Virginia Coal Wars, where workers were able to fight back, and another good example would be the Bisbee Deportation, an example of workers not being able to fight back.

Deportation of striking miners from Bisbee, Arizona, on July 12, 1917. The men are being forced to board the cattle cars provided by the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad, and are about to be sent hundreds of miles with no food or water. Photographer unknown, public domain due to age.

Fearing that organized labor would continue to fight back against companies and governments that would gun down organized labor camps, moneyed interests and the U.S. federal government instituted a $200 tax on machine guns in 1934, thus taking weapons of war out of the hands of workers while leaving the agents of the wealthy alone. This enabled a few further atrocities, but enabled many more companies to intimidate workers with superior firepower, proving Karl Marx right.

I could write a very long article about the subject of labor warfare in the United States alone, but I need to move on. You can learn more about the very real issue of massacres and violence against unions here. Eventually, companies had to stop using such overt violence against striking unions, but even as late as the 1970s, there were strikes that used lower-level violence against employers and strike-breakers (aka “scabs”) to derail an employer’s anti-union strategy, with the very real threat of violence in return.

It’s also worth noting the many good things that came out of the efforts of unions, including those non-union workers benefit from today. Unions fought for a 48-hour work week, followed by a 4o-hour work week during the Great Depression, initially to make sure fewer people got laid off. Eventually, many fair labor practices became not a matter of negotiation, but one of law. Even Social Security has its roots in union pension plans that proved the concept out, allowing it to be adopted by governments.

America’s First Union Remained An Innovator For Most Of Its Existence

My grandfather was once not only a member of the International Typographical Union, but worked as a leader at various levels, including leading strikes or representing the national union at them (including the last one the union won). The ITU represented typesetters and mailers, both industries that are almost completely gone today.

The death of typesetting was once inconceivable. It was a trade that had existed for hundreds of years. In Europe, it had been around since the early to mid 15th century, when Johannes Gutenberg invented and improved the printing press. Prior to the printing press, copies of books and other written materials could only be made by hand, with scribes manually copying the handwriting of others.

In other parts of the world, movable type came earlier, but when we’re talking about the ITU, the European context is key to understanding why people thought it would last forever.

Printers were, in many ways, the new scribes. It’s said that in European countries where only noblemen were allowed to carry a sword, that printers were considered among the nobles. Their ability to engage in mass communication was deeply appreciated by kings and all of the different kinds of “princes” for whom influence and reputation were sometimes a matter of life and death. The nobility and royalty of the times had to respect them and treat their guild well.

By the eighteenth century, the idea of “the press” was more than just a machine that smashed paper and blocks of letters together to make pages for books and newspapers. In the U.S. Constitution, freedom of the press was enshrined as an important natural right of humanity that governments must protect along with freedom of speech and religion, and it’s worth noting that it’s a slightly different freedom than just freedom of speech.

By the time my grandfather became a printer, the profession had been going for about 500 years in western civilization, and typesetting was an essential service that nobody could imagine life without. Printers’ guilds were active in Europe representing the interests of typesetters and others who enabled mass communication, but no such guilds were formed in the United States. Instead, American printers formed unions, and pioneered many organized labor practices other unions still use today.

Not only were printers’ unions the first unions in the United States, but they managed to stay ahead of the curve for most of their existence. The ITU and the unions it developed from pioneered not only new methods of labor organization, but they also pioneered many of the society-wide benefits I discussed in the last section (such as 40-hour work weeks and the Social Security system).

But, their habit of being ahead of the curve eventually meant they ran into an entirely different challenge than other unions ran into, and it’s a challenge that’s plauging the United Auto Workers today.

Today’s War Has Actually Been Going For Decades

It’s common to hear people say that technology doesn’t kill jobs, mostly because workers will be able to find better work in the midst of technological change. If the machine replaces you, then you can get a job repairing the machines, and probably get better pay, right? Sadly, it didn’t work out that way for printers in the 1970s and 1980s.

Printing had improved over the centuries from crude wood and metal blocks to linotype machines, which could cast in metal a whole line of type (or “line-o’-type,” get it?). But, until the 1970s, the pace of technological change was extremely slow, with the example of the linotype machine being a main fixture in a composing room for almost a century.

As you can probably guess based on how we handle printing and mass communication today, computers severely disrupted the industry.

Initially, ITU members and leadership thought that printers would be able to adopt the new technology and continue working. If done right, they thought, maybe they could even make more money working because their productivity would go up. So, they worked hard to embrace new printing technology and make sure their members were ready to work using new machines.

But, my grandfather didn’t get a better job in the new world of computer-driven publishing. Few printers actually did, because there just weren’t that many jobs running the new machines to be had. Worse, as the technology rapidly matured, a whole row of typographical workers could be replaced by one low-paid woman who could touch-type, and there was no shortage of secretarial workers (sometimes “off the street,” and sometimes already working in another room at the newspaper) who would gladly step in and replace them all for a small pay raise.

When the jobs started to rapidly evaporate, the newspapers just didn’t need anything from the union anymore. Their negotiating power went to about zero, and the last successful printers’ strike only succeeded through intimidation, literal beatings of strike-breakers (my grandfather says “they broke people’s arms” when “scabs” tried to cross the picket line), and even arson of company property. Sympathizing unions even got involved, particularly longshoreman (muscular men who loaded and unloaded ships) who could show up with their large cargo handling hooks and look menacing.

But, with only violence and intimidation left in their toolbox to salvage a failing strike (the newspaper was printing using scabs, or temporary workers), no future strikes could draw support from other unions or the public, and the union collapsed not long after. Eventually it split, with mailroom workers joining the Teamsters and the remaining skilled and increasingly digital typographical workers ending up in the Communication Workers of America (CWA).

When the printing trade collapsed, tens of thousands of workers lost what had been a good career with good pay and benefits for centuries, and almost overnight. My grandfather says that at this point, workers had several options.

Many workers killed themselves at this point. In El Paso, there was at least one known suicide, but suicide was stigmatized in those days, so many families didn’t want anyone to know that the printer in the family ended their own life. But, in San Francisco, the deaths were more visible: “Quite a few were jumping off bridges in the Bay Area,” my grandfather says.

While many died, many also found hope in other things. He saw where the industry was going earlier than many other printers, and took a leave of absence, having someone substitute for him to keep his seniority on the “work board” so he could go back and get good working hours. Later, when he was sure that a job in car sales was working out for him, he took an “honorable withdrawal,” which still allowed him to go back to the union later, but without seniority at the El Paso Times or Herald Post.

This idea of clinging to job security during a career change might seem odd to workers in 2023, but the 1970s and 80s were a different time, and people were used to a lot more job security than today, especially when leaving a career that had been good for people for 500 years.

He says that others stayed in the newspaper industry in various roles, and a few stayed on repairing electronics. But, they were few. The working conditions became terrible, with crazy things like foremen watching employees use the restroom to make sure they weren’t hanging out in the bathroom to get a break like they used to.

By the end, newspapers that still had contracts with the local ITU would actively abuse workers any way they could in hopes that the local union would strike, enabling them to fire the bunch of them.

“The daily newspaper is gone,” my grandfather says of today. “People just aren’t buying it and aren’t reading it.”

He now gets $72.72 per month from the CWA-ITU pension, which doesn’t even cover his Medicare premium. According to him, the pension fund is constantly in danger of being taken over by the government, because it’s just not as stable as it once was without tens of thousands of printers, or even tens of thousands of other communications workers paying into it.

The biggest thing he misses about the printing trade and the ITU was the freedom to travel and try new places out. He had a “traveler’s card” he could present at any union newspaper in the United States and Canada, and they’d almost always have good-paying work. He took advantage of this quite a bit during his career, and missed the ability to freely travel and move around later in life.

His First Idea: Try What The ITU Did & Hope For Better Outcomes

After learning a lot more about his union experience, I asked him what he’d do if he were running the UAW during a time when the switch to electric vehicles threatens many autoworkers’ jobs. It’s one of UAW’s biggest concerns, because the automakers won’t need anyone to build complex engines and multi-speed transmissions, plus the battery plants are all springing up in right-to-work states.

“The UAW, they see it coming, and they’re trying to take care of the people it displaces,” he said. Ultimately, the only thing he could think of was what the ITU tried in the 1970s.

Ideas he suggests include:

  1. Insist in raising wages to make up for inflation.
  2. Seek early retirements and buyouts for people who can’t continue jobs that aren’t needed building EVs.
  3. Reduction in hours to keep things spread out instead of losing part of the workforce completely.
  4. Demand automakers contribute more money to pension funds.

This is pretty similar to what the UAW is already doing, which makes sense because unions are set up to work toward these things. The automakers aren’t going away like the printing trade did, and they’re not ready for the wholesale automation that the newspapers did, so the UAW still has a lot of bargaining power.

But, like he did decades ago, he sees some clouds on the horizon. “The automobile manufacturers had better look to the future. It could wipe them out, too,” he said, mentioning the increased longevity and lower maintenance of EVs. Other threats like increased automation were also on his radar, naturally, as that’s what killed his printing career.

He isn’t aware of companies like Aptera, but he says that he thinks solar power will even hurt the EV charging industry. “They’re going to pick up the solar power,” he says, saying that he knows you can’t get much good from solar today, but decades from now, who knows?

The Writing On The Wall For All Of Us

At this point, the former union man and union leader was out of ideas. Perhaps the autoworkers will have to switch careers like he did. Unlike the people who killed themselves, he went into car sales and climbed that ladder for a while. Later, he left that industry and got into chemical sales to agricultural businesses, especially dairies. During retirement, he managed a couple of small rental homes, and as a former union man, he did his best to treat his customers with fairness and integrity, even when it hurt him financially at times.

But, he does see, like many of us, that past security and the ability to find other opportunities could dry up just like a 500-year-old industry did on his watch. But, he’s completely retired now, and has no idea what younger people will do if automation doesn’t continue to give workers more than it takes away.

“I won’t be around to see it, but you probably will.”

And sadly, he’s probably right. We’re seeing a number of other strikes and labor struggles related to automation happen at the same in 2023. While the UAW is worried about losing only a portion of the jobs today (with more in the future), one of the central issues in the ongoing Writers Guild strike is the use of AI tools like ChatGPT to write scripts, potentially replacing human writers or greatly reducing their numbers. Striking actors have also expressed concerns about whether AI could simulate their likeness and acting without compensation, and the shift to streaming services has greatly affected their residuals.

Outside of unions, we’re seeing similar labor issues. People are engaging in violence against autonomous vehicles (aka robotaxis). Only the attacker knows the reasons for a recent attack on a Cruise car with a hammer, but we do know that people have various reasons for vandalism against self-driving vehicles. In 2018, a New York Times report indicated some attackers are angry about the safety risk of autonomous vehicles “beta testing on us,” while others are worried about the future of people’s jobs that may be lost when cabbies and ride-share drivers can’t drive for money anymore.

Even here at CleanTechnica, we’ve had to discuss the use of AI tools, because their use isn’t very easy to detect and could lead to serious quality problems, especially when neural networks dream up fake things that seem legit. As of now, the use of AI tools isn’t much of a time saver, but that’s something that will probably change, leading to fewer bloggers and reporters needed in the world.

There are very few industries not vulnerable to automation in the coming years, with even the legal profession, an industry that seems like it requires too much knowledge and intelligence for AI, starting to run up against the issue.

Union History Still Has One Thing To Teach Us

While my grandfather’s union couldn’t save his career or the careers of many other printers, that doesn’t mean the history of the ITU can’t still give us some clues about what to do in the face of automation and technological change ravaging the future of the global workforce.

This is essential not only because we need the technological changes that are ravaging jobs (especially electric vehicles), but because we need cleaner technologies to not be pit against human well-being, which could lead to cleantech being rejected by society.

I pointed out earlier that things innovated in the ITU and other unions eventually proved that things like Social Security and a 40-hour workweek could function well in the real world. Eventually, when these concepts were proven, some of them became laws or government programs. It might be that instead of trying to do what they’ve done before when automation killed an industry, we should take what works in unions and run with it.

I know this is complicated. The wider world probably can’t become a socialist utopia that some of us want, especially in the United States. Ideas that work in a private association have important limits when it comes to government, so forcing the whole workforce into one big union wouldn’t fly, because people have the right to not be in a union (freedom of association) or to just not work for whatever reason. Plenty of other obstacles and headwinds are out there for any effort to change things.

But, this didn’t stop a 40-hour workweek (with overtime usually paid for more hours) and Social Security from becoming law once it was proven that the concept works, so there’s hope to take at least some ideas from union efforts and use them society-wide.

An important part of getting good ideas to a wider audience is adaptation. For example, the UAW is working to take care of workers who lose their job to EVs. How exactly we protect people from automation and change isn’t as important as the goal itself. So, instead of trying to copy a working solution word-for-word, we need to be flexible to tailor good ideas to a larger situation.

One way to possible take care of people while taking care of the environment would be some form of universal basic income (UBI). This isn’t that different from Social Security, except everyone is now disabled compared to faster machines. This could be funded from a variety of things, and they don’t need to necessarily be taxation (which would bring accusations of socialism or communism that can be a poison pill in US politics). Giving people ownership of personal data, which must then be paid for by automated companies (as suggested by Andrew Yang, and could come in the form of a union-like organization), is one option that not only respects but enhances property and privacy rights.

This is just one example of adaptation, though. UBI and a data union might not be the solution we need to the conundrum of workers vs cleantech and automation, but the overall idea of adapting the good from the past to new things is worth pursuing more.

Like my grandfather, we’re going to need to adapt and roll with the punches here. There’s no reason we can’t adapt together instead of hoping too many of us don’t jump off a bridge.

Featured image: International Typographical Union exhibit at the Alaska–Yukon–Pacific Exposition, Seattle, 1909. Image by Frank Nowell (Public Domain, expired copyright)

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Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.


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