After the UMWA was defeated and crushed at Blair Mountain, union membership in many regions of West Virginia fell by as much as 80%. It wasn’t until President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal that labor unions in general began to recover lost ground.
The Norris-La Guardia Act of 1932, signed in the last year of Hoover’s presidency, outlawed “yellow dog contracts” and barred federal courts from issuing injunctions against peaceful labor disputes. The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, part of the New Deal’s 100 Days, declared the legal right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, enacted after NIRA was declared unconstitutional, reiterated the rights to unionization and collective bargaining, established the National Labor Relations Board to settle disputes, and declared it illegal for businesses to ban unions or discriminate against union members.
The passage of these three laws gave rise to a new era of union growth in the ‘30s and ‘40s and empowered labor leaders such as John Lewis of the United Mine Workers and West Virginia’s own Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers.
Lewis, for his part, returned to West Virginia and like the famous posters of Uncle Sam told the miners, “The President wants you to join the Union.” By the time World War II began, most of West Virginia had been brought back into the fold.
Reuther galvanized the UAW, organizing all of the Big Three car manufacturers: General Motors in 1936, Chrysler in 1937, and finally Ford in 1941. At the outbreak of World War II, it was Reuther who suggested that the Big Three turn their production from cars to airplanes and tanks, turning Detroit into the famed “Arsenal of Democracy.” After the war, President Eisenhower congratulated him on his success in helping mobilize American manufacturing for the war, telling him, “you did your job, and you did it well.”
After the war, the unions turned back to domestic issues. Both Lewis and Reuther were vehemently anti-Communist and purged party members from union ranks, and together they formed both sides of a single coin. Lewis and the UMW turned their focus to the Federal Mine Safety Act and black lung compensation, which they won in 1952 and 1969.
Reuther started with the 1950 Treaty of Detroit, an agreement between the Big Three and the UAW that guaranteed no strikes for five years in return for better wages, health care, and pensions, catapulting autoworkers into the new post-war middle class. This was the same year that, while on a state-of-the-art automated factory tour with Henry Ford II, Ford said to Reuther, “Walter, how are you going to get these robots to pay union dues?” Reuther reportedly responded, “Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?”
Having secured better wages and pensions for his workers, Reuther turned to social issues that would better the lives of all workers. He marched with Dr. King at Selma and Birmingham, helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, and fought for clean air and water.
Unfortunately, this marked the high point of the labor unions. Faced with a massive post-war boom worldwide that undercut American manufacturing, a shift in manufacturing from the traditionally union states in the Rust Belt to right-to-work states in the South, and a shift away from traditional tunnel mining in Appalachia to cheaper open-pit mining in Wyoming, the major labor unions of the ‘50s began their decline. With the unions went the steady increases in wages and benefits, both of which have actually decreased since 1960 when adjusted for inflation.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average wage of $2.27 an hour for automobile assembly in 1957, if strictly adjusted for inflation with no raises, would today equal a wage of $21.20 an hour. The BLS reports an average of $17.46 for 2019.
The sole exceptions to the general decline of labor unions are those in the public and tech sectors, demonstrated most recently by the historic 2018 Education Strikes in nine states for better wages and increased public education funding. Led by West Virginia’s rank-and-file teachers and service personnel, the strike united all 55 counties for a nine-day strike, resulting in a 5% pay increase and a commitment to study improvements to the Public Employees Insurance Agency.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.