Thomas J. Sugrue: Workers’ Paradise Lost

Roundup: Historians' Take

Thomas J. Sugrue, a professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.”

THE 211 Bar and Grill is a little watering hole near Michigan’s Black Lake, in a place that natives call “up north.” Its walls are adorned with prizewinning pike, deer heads, even a wolverine. But its most striking ornament is a patch of wall where visiting autoworkers proudly scrawl their union affiliations: “Fighting Local 600.” “Local 22 — Hamtramck.”

That wall testifies to more than 75 years of union power in Michigan. Given that history, many were surprised this week when Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, signed legislation preventing unions from forcing workers to pay dues. But, in fact, it’s been a long time since Michigan was a workers’ paradise.

The 211 Bar opened in 1946, a turning point for labor. That year saw one of the greatest strike waves in American history, and the United Automobile Workers elected the indomitable Walter P. Reuther its president. By 1950, he had forged the “treaty of Detroit,” ushering in an era of prosperity. Autoworkers won decent wages, health insurance, unemployment benefits and a pension plan. Unionization benefited nonunion workers too, because even nonunion employers needed to offer higher pay and benefits to compete with union pay packets....

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