On Profit-Taking and Yellow Dogs

With Labor Day weekend upon us, it’s appropriate we take a moment and consider the status of the American worker.  Given the unemployment figures, the devastating export of American jobs to foreign countries, and, accordingly, the paucity of full-time jobs that offer decent pay and good benefits, it’s not a very encouraging picture.  In fact, it’s fairly bleak.

One doesn’t have to be a hardcore cynic to ask why we continue to celebrate Labor Day.  Clearly, the patriotic aspect of this once-exalted holiday is long gone.  No one is interested in glorifying the American worker—not John Q. Public, not the beleaguered workers themselves, and certainly not the companies employing them.  In truth, the only purpose Labor Day now serves is providing the last 3-day weekend of summer.

Not surprisingly, U.S. companies continue to thrive.  In November, 2010 (in the midst of a debilitating recession), the Department of Commerce reported that U.S. companies just had their best quarter . . . ever.   That statement bears repeating.  U.S. companies had their best quarter ever.  Businesses recorded profits at an annual rate of $1.66 trillion in the third quarter of 2010, which is the highest rate (in non-inflation-adjusted figures) since the government began keeping records more than 60 years ago.

That statistic tends to confuse people.  They naturally assume that when you have one of the worst recessions in American history, one that followed the biggest financial crash since the Great Depression, the fallout is going to affect everyone, not just the people on the bottom—the ones who lost their jobs or their homes or had their pay cut—but America’s corporations as well.  But that didn’t happen.

Corporate America is doing amazingly well.  And when you take a moment to consider it, you realize why.  They have not only laid off millions of workers, they have cut or squeezed the wages of those who remained.  That represents an enormous, unprecedented savings in overhead.  With skeletal, understaffed, underpaid workforces looking just to hang on because they’re afraid of losing their jobs, these businesses are flush.  The only thing they have left to bitch about is their taxes, which they do non-stop.

But just when you thought things couldn’t sink any lower, there are reports that some of these employers are engaging in the same anti-union mischief that was done way back in the 1870s and 1880s.  American companies are now asking their non-union employees to sign documents promising that they will never join a labor union.

Such agreements, prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were called “yellow dog contracts,” and signing one was a condition of employment.  They wouldn’t hire you unless you signed it.  And if you signed a yellow dog contract, and were caught trying to organize or join a union, you could be fired on the spot.  They played rough in those days.  They hated unions and did anything in their power—legal or illegal—to keep them out.

Although the final step in making yellow dog contracts illegal was the 1932 Norris-LaGuardia Act, there were several intermediate steps leading up to its prohibition, including several states (beginning with New York) passing laws making them illegal, and passage in 1898 of the Erdman Act, which banned railroads from such restrictions (although portions of Erdman were later struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court).

That today’s businesses would resort to something so nakedly anti-union as having employees sign yellow dog clauses shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Not only does anti-union sentiment among the American public run fairly high, but U.S. businesses see themselves as invincible.  What are they afraid of?  Having their wrist slapped by the Department of Labor?  Having a handful of picketers march outside their gates?

Because these “agreements” are unenforceable, the AFL-CIO advises job applicants to go ahead and sign them.  After all, jobs are already hard enough to get without making them harder.  As for established workers, they should sign them also.  You don’t want to get passed up for a promotion because you sounded vaguely pro-union.

Again, because these agreements aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, people need to be smart and do what’s necessary.  We live in a world turned upside down.  Unions not only used to be respected, they were more or less admired.  But today, with the rise of Corporationism, unions have come to be seen as the enemy.  Unions are now something to be ashamed of.  They’re a menace.  Happy Labor Day.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net. Read other articles by David.