Centuries-Old Union Busting Playbook is Alive and WellRoundup
tags: unions, labor history, union busting
Henry Snow is a PhD candidate in history at Rutgers University. Their work focuses on labor and community in the 18th and 19th century Atlantic world.
Corporations like Starbucks and Amazon (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post) are desperately trying to stop their workers from unionizing. Both have simply fired organizing workers and closed their stores. Amazon has called in the police to stop organizing activity, while Starbucks has threatened to rescind employee health care coverage. These measures have been supported by misinformation aimed at the public, such as Starbucks’s open letter to the National Labor Relations Board. Union-busters have relied on technology to suppress unions as well. Amazon’s warehouses are structured to minimize interpersonal interaction, with scanners giving workers orders from on high.
These tactics come directly from an anti-union playbook older than unions themselves. Today’s union-busting echoes the efforts of administrators in one of the earliest organized workplaces: Britain’s Royal Dockyards. Anti-union efforts in the dockyards reveal how employers break organized labor: a multifaceted strategy targeting workers, their relationship with each other and their work itself.
Home to thousands of skilled artisans, the Royal Dockyards were remarkably modern production facilities in which workers had surprisingly modern labor rights. By the mid-18th century, Royal Dockyard shipwrights — specialized carpenters who built and repaired ships — had the equivalent of lunch breaks, limited tenure and pensions. Job security and other benefits were invaluable in a period with no organized labor protections. Plus, men within the same trade — shipwrights, caulkers and blacksmiths, for instance — were paid similarly to one another, a marker of an egalitarian culture of work grounded in the collective nature of dockyard labor.
To be sure, the dockyards were not a laborer’s paradise. Wages were regularly months late, work was dangerous and taxing and a stingy Parliament refused to allow for pay increases even when inflation began eroding real wages. Still, the yards were a place where stable multigenerational families could count on a living, backed by traditional rights and defended by the community.
Shipbuilders secured their rights in the dockyard through organizing, backed by the power of artisan tradition and based in close interpersonal ties. Families, friends and neighbors worked closely together to cut timber, build frames and seal hulls. Within the yards, workers had significant control over the means of production, collectively influencing the intensity, hours and structure of their own labor.
When necessary, they engaged in collective action to protect that control.
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