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An Overlooked Chapter in History: The Rise of Municipal Unions

May 14, 2016

A recent JSTOR Daily post by Livia Gershon offered a brief synopsis of a paper for The History Teacher, written by Robert Shaffer, that described the rise of municipal unions, especially teachers unions. As one who has read books about and taught courses on the History of Education, I learned something new in the article and made some connections I’d overlooked previously.

Two things in the brief article were new information for me. First, that the marked rise in the unionization of government employees began after John F. Kennedy signed an executive order in 1962 allowing federal employees to unionize. Shortly thereafter, many states and municipalities followed suit. Second, that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a moving force behind the teachers unionization efforts in Philadelphia in 1965.

Both of these pieces of new information helped me make some new connections. First, that “The Sixties” were about a lot more than the Peace Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the War on Poverty, and all the turmoil associated with those movements in that era. It may well be that the unionization of government employees— which clearly has its roots in that era—  has had as far reaching an impact as any of those movements. Second, the past three decades since the Rise of Reagan have been all about undoing every single one of the reforms that occurred in the Sixties. Our military invasions, the squashing of voting rights, the re-segregation of schools, the War on Drugs, and the efforts to crush public employee unions are all part of a counter-movement to take power away from employees and those who are raised in poverty and born with dark skin or in a foreign country. Third, the roots of the public sector union movement took hold at a time when middle class wages, benefits, good working conditions, and defined benefit pensions were a given in the private sector. The private sector was able to suppress wages, erode working conditions, and take away benefits and pensions by moving their factories: first to “right to work” states and then offshore. This inflated their profits to the benefit of shareholders and created a hostility toward the unionized public employees among their displaced workers.

We find ourselves now at a point where the results of the movements of the 1960s are all in peril and the institutional memory of what happened during that era is diminishing. I saw a graphic yesterday that indicated that those who are my age are now older than 87% of the rest of the populous… which means there are fewer and fewer of us who lived through the 1960s alive. The Republican revisionists want us to believe that the Sixties were mostly about sex, drugs, and rock and roll… an era when licentiousness and rampant drug use replaced rules and regulations that helped civilize our culture. In doing so they want us to forget the hard fought victories of the civil rights movement, the Women’s movement, the Peace movement, and—yes—the union movement. These movements were all about liberty and freedom for large groups of previously disenfranchised and underpaid workers. Instead of that world, we now have a supposed “meritocracy” where those with high skills get the high wages they deserve and everyone else gets Facebook, fast food, and “free stuff”.

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