Friday, November 18, 2011

The Occupiers’ delicate and dangerous balancing act

A recent Public Policy poll shows some slippage in support for Occupy Wall Street.   In October, 35% of Americans supported Occupy’s goals while 36% opposed.  Now support is down to 33% while opposition has grown to 45%, a shift of 11 points in one month.  Occupiers are also losing the support of independents who have gone from 39% in support to 42% in opposition.  Occupiers should take this slippage in support as a warning.  Americans, even those who support reforms, rarely want to pay much of a price for change or even be greatly inconvenienced.  Unions learned that less in the 1940s.

A little history.  On July 5, 1935, President Roosevelt signed into law the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act.  For the first time in history, the Wagner Act put the federal government solidly on the side of unions.  Prior to the Wagner Act, unions had been tolerated.  Now unions would be encouraged.  It was a great victory for organized labor.  However, in just a dozen years with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, anti-union forces were able to undo practically all that labor had accomplished with the Wagner Act.  Why did this happen?  Too many strikes.

At the beginning of World War II, American unions took a no-strike pledge for the duration of the war and in the first two years of the war the number of strikes dropped dramatically.  By 1943, strikes over wages and hours began to increase.  After the end of the war in August of 1945, they exploded.  The next 12 months saw no less than 4,600 work stoppages involving more than 5 million workers, about a third of the union workforce.   In November 1945, 200,000 United Auto Workers began a strike against General Motors that involved 92 plants across the nation and lasted for 113 days.  In January 1946, 750,000 steelworkers went on strike demanding a two dollar per day increase in base pay that steel producers refused.  There were strikes in almost every key industry including coal, public utilities, electric power, and transportation.  These strikes affected thousands of Americans directly or indirectly.  Consumers seeking to purchase goods found the products they wanted to buy were no longer available.  Employees of smaller supplier companies found their hours cut and jobs threatened as big company parts orders dried up.  The unions went too far and lost public support.  By 1946, 68% of Americans were calling for Congressional action to limit strikes.  Anti-union forces won passage of the Taft-Hartley in 1947 and much of the pro-union policy contained in the Wagner Act began to unravel. 

There is an important lesson in the union story for the Occupy Wall Street movement.  One of the most infuriating things for progressives is the inconsistency of the American voter.  In general, Americans want their government to take action to make their lives better.  On the other hand, Americans do not want government involved in their lives.  Americans want governments to provide benefits and services but Americans do not want to pay taxes to fund those benefits and services.  In general, Americans support the right of their fellow Americans to take to the streets to protest injustice.   On the other hand, Americans don’t like having their daily lives disrupted by the protests, at least not for very long.  In the case of labor unions, Americans thought it was perfectly fine for workers to organize and to even occasionally strike to get better wages and working conditions.  That is, it was all right for unions to strike until the strikes became an inconvenience. 

Occupiers need to keep this quirk of American nature in mind.  They must consider how their actions might affect the average American.  Will their protest unduly disrupt the average American’s life?  Will their actions overly inconvenience him?  If so, they risk losing public support.  They must maintain a delicate balance between doing what is necessary to achieve reform and gain attention without going too far.  In the 1940s, the unions overreached.  There were too many strikes, too many of the strikes inconvienced large numbers of Americans and too many of the strikes did not seem justified to the average citizen.  Unions made a big, big mistake and it cost them dearly.  Occupiers must not make the same mistake.

You can read more about the American labor movement, the Wagner Act and the Taft-Hartley Act in my book Getting Things Done in Washington.  More information here:

Read the Public Policy poll here:

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