For nearly seven decades, the United Steelworkers Hall Local 1190 on South Third Street in Steubenville, Ohio, was more than just a place to file grievances and vote on contracts. The two-story brick building was central to the communal life of generations of steelworkers and their families. It was where they held wedding receptions; where their kids got Christmas gift bags; and where, sometimes, families first learned that their husband or son was not coming home from the mill. The union hall was also one of the only public venues in town where second- and third-generation immigrants, as well as black steelworkers, could mingle as part of one union family.
Today, it stands—like many former businesses, homes, and churches in Steubenville—empty. The union hall is a victim of both the collapse of America’s steel industry and the decimation of organized labor. Steubenville, which lies on the Ohio River bordering West Virginia, is the prototypical Rust Belt town. So much so that it was one of the locations for the 1978 film The Deerhunter, which follows a group of steelworker friends serving in the Vietnam War. At one point, Steubenville was home to some 30,000 steelworkers and an equally strong labor movement. But that was decades ago. With the local manufacturing economy destroyed, the steelworker hall is largely an artifact of the past, just another empty building on another empty block.
Too often, analysts describe the decline of unions solely in terms of political economy. As important as that is, America lost something else when we lost strong local unions. Local 1190 was just one of thousands of now-shuttered union halls across the industrial heartland that served as critical community institutions, a flourishing civil society that stood between the individual worker and the forces of concentrated corporate power.
“Union halls gave workers ownership in their community.”
As labor historian Robert Bruno wrote in his study of steelworkers in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, “the function of the union for the steelworkers was not limited strictly to workplace representation or institutional opposition to capital. The union was an agent of social formation.” Through charity, neighborhood socialization, and political mobilization, union halls gave workers ownership in their community and jobs that incubated the values of hard work, active citizenship, and an inclusive “common-man” patriotism. These efforts helped generate one of America’s most vibrant examples of associational democracy in action.
The singular focus of Western liberalism on individual liberty has overshadowed another critical tradition, one emphasized by thinkers from Alexis De Tocqueville to Pope Pius XI, that sees voluntary bottom-up associations, not rational self-interest, as the most important guarantee of individual liberty. In his seminal book The Quest for Community, conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet described associations as forms of authority “rooted in the statutes, functions, [and] allegiances, which are components of any associations” and are based on the free consent of its members. He contrasted this with power—external, unaccountable, and originating from the outside. The best check against external, unaccountable power is the multiplication of smaller authorities such as labor associations. Freedom, Nisbet insisted, is “nourished by competition among authorities.”
Writing from the vantage point of the 1950s, Nisbet saw centralized government as the main threat to freedom. But for workers in pre-New Deal Logan County, W.Va., or Homestead, Pa., big government wasn’t the problem. Big corporations were. They ran the towns. They ran the police. And they often ran the stores, as well. In some mining communities, they even ran the churches.
Organized labor provided a counter-authority—an institution created and run by workers—that gave members a sense of independence, occupational pride, and a platform for civic engagement. When times were tough, workers could count on the charity of their co-workers, not the company. Collective bargaining gave workers a sense of equal standing with employers. Unions also augmented the strength of other civic associations, most notably churches.
As sociologists Theda Skocpol and Lainey Newman note in their analysis of the decline of organized labor in western Pennsylvania, unions regularly encouraged members to support their local faith institutions. The authors quote one organized-labor veteran who said that unions and churches were the “two big organizations that tied those communities together.” And unions ensured that local politics reflected the interests of their communities. Political engagement was then, as it is now, a priority for labor, but it was a different kind of politics than we see today. They were genuine expressions of worker and community solidarity, less focused on partisanship or individual candidates and more concerned with expressing their identity as union members.
In his 1993 memoir, the socialist leader Tim Wohlforth captured this spirit in his description of Cleveland in 1958 on the eve of the statewide ballot on right-to-work legislation:
The trade unions went all out to mobilize the members against the proposal. The rank and file came out to campaign, and the result was something to see. I went on a tour of Cleveland early election-day morning. There were union people giving out literature at just about every polling place. Union-organized taxi services ferried the elderly and sick to the polls. People greeting each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister.’
The collapse of union-organized associational life in much of the Rust Belt has resulted in the rise of alienation and insecurity among working Americans, forcing them to seek new forms of solidarity and community wherever they can. A lack of ready alternatives has driven some back into the hands of the corporations. Skocpol and Newman encountered many old-timer steelworkers expressing hostility toward younger workers for showing more loyalty to the company than to the union.
The shift has reached its epitome in West Virginia, where the coal-company-funded “Friends of Coal” p.r. campaign aims at tying residents’ interests directly to the health of the coal industry. In many coal communities, loyalty has switched from the dwindling United Mine Workers of America back to the coal industry as the workers’ only source of hope. Friends of Coal even established their own ladies’ auxiliary, similar to the ladies auxiliaries set up by the UMWA earlier this century to organize members’ wives and daughters. But unlike the UMWA, Friends of Coal isn’t accountable to an active membership. There are no dues, voting, or regular meetings. It is a one-way relationship, funded by big coal and run by a team of marketing professionals out of Charleston—a prime example of an alienating external power Nisbet warned about.
Contrary to those who denounce “Big Labor” as a threat to individual liberty, the experience of working-class communities across the United States shows that unions enriched freedom by creating a plurality of localized authorities throughout society that challenged the unchecked and impersonal power of modern capitalism and gave workers an independent platform. And restoring that freedom demands a rejuvenated labor movement.
While some unions are more centralized than others, the structure of most modern unions, organized into geographical locals where authority and organization emanate from the bottom to the top, aligns closely with Catholic theologian Meghan Clark’s definition of the principle of subsidiarity, locating authority at “the lowest level possible and the highest level necessary.”
Nisbet’s recommendation for rebuilding the forces of local pluralism in the face of encroaching central power was for lawmakers to adopt what he termed a “new” laissez-faire approach. In contrast to the laissez-faire of classical liberalism, this new laissez-faire prioritized the freedom not just of the individual, but civil society. In other words, get the government out of the way and allow families, churches, and unions to thrive and grow.
But for unions to grow in 2023, what is needed is the administrative state’s assistance in getting another source of impersonal power out of the way: corporate America. This would start with a serious commitment to not only enforce existing labor laws, but to revamp them to ensure a level playing field for workers. Without real penalties for corporate union-busting, unions will continue to face an uphill climb.
It also means giving local unions more power and resources to do the things they can do better than the government or employers, like training. Unions like the building trades and the Culinary Workers Union in Las Vegas boast some of the country’s best and most comprehensive vocational training programs, and that bonds members closely to their unions and encourages a sense of occupation pride.
Rebuilding associational life in the United States in the age of TikTok, hostile partisanship, and collapsing social capital is an enormous challenge. Still, it is hard to think of any institution that would be a better place to start than the labor movement. Those who fear the partisan implications of a bigger labor movement should keep in mind that well into the 1980s, most union members voted Democrat not because union officials told them to, but because of the historical memory of the New Deal and what it did to ensure the birth of an institution so central to working peoples’ communities and self-identity.
Any politician, regardless of partisan identity, willing to help rebuild that institution stands a good chance of benefiting from the same goodwill. But this requires shedding the dogmas of individualist liberalism and rediscovering the crucial role of community association—including on the economic level—in ensuring freedom for all.