Boeing’s recent decision to increase production in South Carolina over Washington state has caused much anxiety and soul-searching. Most commentators have responded either by blaming unions for not giving in to Boeing’s demands or, alternatively, accepting that Boeing’s decision was preordained and trying to figure out how to attract new investment to the Puget Sound region. In short, we have tended to blame ourselves. But few have asked why we have unions in the first place, and whether the real problem is in South Carolina rather than in Washington state. To ask the question this way is to probe the meaning of American freedom itself.
One of the greatest mysteries is why British colonists, members of the most powerful and wealthy empire in the world, would declare independence in 1776. If we assume that they acted from economic motives, their actions makes no sense. But to American patriots freedom meant more than money. It meant not to be subject to another’s will. To be dependent on another’s will, the patriots argued, was to be a slave. Colonial Americans did not oppose taxes; they opposed taxes being passed by people other than their own representatives. From their perspective, such taxes, made without the consent of colonial legislatures, reduced them to slavery. Only when one is the author of the laws and rules by which one is governed — that is, when one can consent to those laws and rules — can one be said to be free.
Following independence, these ideas about freedom transformed American society. Throughout the states, more and more Americans demanded the right to vote. For white men, property restrictions were reduced so that by the 1830s Americans had the widest suffrage in the history of the world. To all these Americans, freedom meant being the author of one’s own laws.
These ideas shaped how American workers responded to industrialization in the first half of the 1800s. As small artisan shops gave way to factories, workers increasingly found themselves becoming wage earners with less control over their work environment. More and more, workers were dependent on the money and whim of employers. In short, workers discovered that they were in a situation similar to their forefathers in 1776! Without some influence over the conditions of one’s workplace and the terms of employment, workers were effectively slaves. Just as America’s patriots rebelled in 1776 against the tyrannical rule of Britain, workers formed associations to protest being governed in the marketplace without their consent.
These early labor unions met much resistance from America’s elite, who argued that the “free market” should determine wages and working conditions. Workers responded that a market in which the terms of work were set by more powerful employers without the consent of workers was no less a tyranny than a government in which taxes were imposed without popular consent. Freedom depended on consent in the market no less than in government. Without consent, individuals were reduced to slavery, subject to the will of another. In a country where enslaved African Americans continued to be a large part of the workforce, slavery was not an abstraction. Workers knew what it meant to be a slave and they fought against it.
Ever since these early efforts by workers to make good on the American Revolution’s promise, workers and employers have argued over the meaning of economic freedom. To employers, the right to hire and fire at will and to have total control over wages is the essence of freedom. To workers who invoke the legacy of the American Revolution, however, freedom is to be free of the arbitrary will of another, whether a king or an employer.
Following the American Civil War, conflicts between laborers and workers became violent, leading to all-out war from the forges of Pennsylvania to the coal fields of Colorado. Not until the New Deal did the federal government step in to grant laborers the right to organize and to restore the balance of power between workers and employers.
Soon after, however, the New Deal’s accomplishments were undermined by the 1947 Taft-Hartley act that authorized so-called “right to work” laws. Taft-Hartley prohibited closed shops, meaning when an employer agrees only to hire union members. It also allowed states to prevent union shops by passing so-called right-to-work laws. Union shops, unlike closed shops, allow employers to hire anybody but require all employees to join the union or to pay a fee. By allowing states to prohibit union shops, Taft-Hartley weakened unions’ bargaining power relative to employers by preventing workers from pitting their collective strength against the collective strength of corporate investors. It allowed corporations but not unions; or, put another way, unions for investors but not for workers. Twenty-two states, including South Carolina, have so-called right-to-work laws. Corporations like Boeing love these laws because they promise not just cheaper wages but greater control over workers. They promote dependence rather than freedom.
As we ponder the fate of Boeing in the Pacific Northwest, there are two options. The first is to accept that South Carolina will underbid Washington workers. This is about more than money. It is about the level of control employers can exert over their employees. In time, foreign countries with cheaper wages and draconian working conditions will underbid South Carolina in a never-ending race to the bottom.
The other option is to pressure the federal government to create uniform rules by repealing Taft-Hartley’s prohibition on union shops and by stepping up enforcement of existing labor laws in order to enable workers to protect their economic freedom — the actual right to work — whether they live in South Carolina or Washington state.
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