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An Environmental Determinist History of the Labor Movement


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Above: Not people migrating to work at the River Rouge in Dearborn.

Although I write more about labor history in the public sphere, my academic training is in environmental history. As an environmental historian, there’s nothing more frustrating or annoying than environmental determinism (yes, I’m looking at you Jared Diamond). To say the least, nothing can be explained by a single factor and to say that environmental issues determine the past or future completely undermines human agency. It also places unnecessary blinders on our examination of our society that stops us from understanding just why things did happen.

I never thought I’d see a paper explaining the rise of American unions through environmental determinism. But I guess I should have known better. Here’s a summary:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015 roughly half of the nation’s 14.8 million union members lived in just seven states: California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and New Jersey. Yet these states accounted for only one-third of paid employment nationally. And those same states have held the highest unionization rates for decades. So why do some states remain heavily unionized while others do not? “It turns out there was something that happened in the 1930s that set the rank of unionization in place across states in the United States, and that rank has stayed roughly the same ever since,” says Lauren H. Cohen, the L.E. Simmons Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

The thing that happened was the Dust Bowl: a series of severe dust storms and droughts that decimated farms in the Great Plains during the 1930s, forcing thousands of families to abandon their property. Many migrated to close-by cities, often in California but also in other states, in hopes of finding jobs.

Wait, what? The Dust Bowl explains why Pennsylvania has high unionization rates?

Alas, the Dust Bowl coincided with the Great Depression. Jobs were scarce, and those who still had jobs were loath to lose them to migrants. And so they unionized.

“Let’s say you were a subsistence farmer,” Cohen explains. “The drought dried up your crops. You still had to feed your family. So you traveled to the closest city and tried to get a job. Of course, that put pressure on people who did have jobs. They were working for a dollar an hour, and you were willing to come and do the same job for 50 cents. So the people who had jobs said, ‘Let’s unionize to make sure these farmers don’t take our jobs.’”

Oh, yeah, those cities close to the Dust Bowl have super high unionization rates. Dallas. Albuquerque. Houston. Oklahoma City. Huh?

Also, I will note that the authors never provide the first shred of evidence that people organizing to keep their jobs from Okies was why unions formed. I mean one could, you know, go to the words of actual union organizers to talk about why they were forming unions or to those of workers to see why they joined. But then that wouldn’t fit into a fancy regression analysis.

They considered the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which guaranteed the rights of private-sector employees to unionize and engage in collective bargaining. The act certainly encouraged labor forces to unionize. But a national act applies to the whole nation, so it didn’t explain state-to-state differences in unionization rates.

The Dust Bowl, on the other hand, was a massive external force that affected only certain geographic areas.

Yes. Of course the Dust Bowl did not affect the states that had high unionization rates except for California because, yes, lots of migrants ended up there during the 1930s. But they weren’t competing for union jobs at that point. The real turning point for unionization in California was with the rise of the industrial economy during the war that created the big defense plants. And while those migrants were now moving out of the fields and into the defense plants, I’ve never seen any evidence that the growth of unions in those plants had anything to do with keeping other white people out.

The drought-year unionization density predicted relative unionization density in 1943, 1953, 1973, etc., all the way up to 2013. (These findings held true only in those industries in which migrants tried to find jobs during the Dust Bowl—manufacturing jobs, for instance, but not teaching jobs.) In other words, it wasn’t all migration but only the migration related to the Dust Bowl droughts that predicted modern unionization patterns.

“Droughts caused migration. Migration caused pressure on the current workforce. Pressure caused the workforce to unionize. And that unionization just has an incredibly long tail,” Cohen says.

I’m really glad these researchers have a complex view of the past. One things causes another which causes another. OK. Glad we can make these claims without complicating them. I guess I’m in the wrong field.

“I think the reason why this paper is important, especially now, is that unions are a hotly debated issue within policy and within our political process,” Cohen says. “Some people say we absolutely need them. And some say there was a time in history that we needed them, but we’ve outgrown that time. I think both sides have to confront the fact that a fair amount of unionization that exists today was set in place in a random way. So if you want to say unions are great, or if you want to say they’re awful, either way you have to explain why something so obviously great or so obviously awful can be so significantly influenced by something that is essentially random.”

No. Just no. Good lord.

There is so much wrong here. We are talking problems solved by taking History 101. First, there’s no evidence that I am aware of that white migrants from the Dust Bowl played a major role in manufacturing unionism or even trying to take manufacturing jobs during the Depression. These were mostly rural people and they wanted to stay mostly rural people. They most famously went to California but also many went to places like southwestern Washington where they bought up logged-off land to start a new generation of impoverished farming. Many of these migrants of course did eventually end up in the suburbs working in manufacturing, but that’s a generation later. This is a non-issue in the 1930s.

Second, relatively few Dust Bowl migrants ended up in union-dense states. You did see rural migration to these states during the 1930s. Mostly it was from southern Appalachia. Those people did affect the union campaigns of Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania, but a) they were not fleeing climate disasters and b) the unions didn’t appear to keep these workers out. If anything, they joined the unions to keep African-Americans out.

Third, the development of mass unionization in certain states was not “random.” It was a complex confluence of factors that included a) the Fordist factory floor that employed thousands of people which did not exist in most states, b) traditions of socialism from European immigration, c) state governments willing to tolerate unions, d) sizable Catholic and Jewish populations versus the evangelical Protestantism of the South and Great Plains. Could climate-based migration play a role in union history? Sure, I guess. But is this argument had merits, wouldn’t have there been some sort of union growth in cities near the Dust Bowl to protect workers from this new competition? Yet there was so little union presence in these states that even Democratic politicians from these states could attack unions with ferocity and vote for Taft-Hartley because there was no labor movement to speak of in their states. Thus, you have LBJ using his strong anti-unionism as a major campaign point in the 1948 election to the Senate, even though his opponent was equally anti-union.

In other words, this is a dreadfully wrong argument. Of course it is made by a professor at the Harvard Business School.

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