…the cord connecting union organizing and activism to broad currents of the American public has been frayed nearly to the breaking point. Unions always had powerful enemies, but they also had a broad institutional legitimacy grounded in their ubiquitous presence within economics, politics, and even culture. (Who can imagine today a hit Broadway show like The Pajama Game of the 1950s, or a popular film like Norma Rae of the 1970s?) When union membership peaked in the mid 1950s at about 35 percent, it was disproportionately weighted to the Northeast, the Midwest, and California. But that meant that in those regions—the most populous in the country—either a worker was in a union himself/herself, had a family member in a union, or, at least, had a friend or neighbor in a union. People, for better or worse, knew what unions did and understood them to be an almost ordinary part of the workings of democratic capitalism.
Most important, they knew, for better or worse, that unions had power. Sixty years ago, the UAW or the Mineworkers or the Steelworkers, not only deeply affected crucial sectors of an industrial economy, they also demanded respect from broader society—demands made manifest in the “political strikes” they organized, whether legally or not, to protest the issues of the day. Millions supported these strikes, millions despised them—but nobody could ignore them.