URI Prof Scott Molloy brings history of unions to life in Portsmouth talk (update)

Prof. Scott Molloy
URI Prof. Scott Molloy speaks at PMS

In a 40-minute talk packed with artifacts and anecdotes, URI professor Scott Molloy covered the history of labor unions for an audience of dozens at Portsmouth Middle School last night.

A self-described union supporter and organizer who gained his "street smarts" as a RIPTA bus driver before graduate school, Molloy began the talk by debunking the myth that unions are a 20th-century phenomenon.

Starting with the artisan's guilds of the Middle Ages, Molloy traced the rise of organized labor, with an emphasis on Rhode Island's unique position. Slater Mill in Pawtucket, said Molloy, was the birthplace of the American factory in 1790, and within a few years, unions were already in place.

"We've been here from day one," said Molloy, "And unless I read my history wrong, we'll be here for some time to come."

Molloy handed around a dozen plastic-sealed primary documents, including a an 1829 letter from a Newport union lobbying the general assembly and an 1887 ad from the Providence Journal specifying that "no Irish need apply."

A key event, according to Molloy, was the 1955 merger of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which had organized by craft, and the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) which organized in industries across skills.

Molloy attributed the decline of the labor movement to global forces, as businesses left the United States to save money. Another factor is the great recession of the past years that Molloy said has been used to "pit us against one another," and which, he pointed out, was not caused by unions.

"When you saw Bernie Madoff led out in handcuffs, he didn't have a union button in his lapel," said Molloy. "This was not a labor crisis, this was a financial crisis." In 1950, he said, corporate taxes comprised 32% of federal revenue, while today, that number has shrunk to 6%.

But Molloy expressed hope for the future. Evens in Wisconsin, where the Governor attempted to take away collective bargaining rights, have rekindled union support. "The slumbering giant is finally waking up," Molloy said.

The event was the first of the Portsmouth Democratic Town Committee's "Democracy Talks" series.

Full disclosure: I am an officer of the Portsmouth Democratic Town Committee which sponsored the talk.

Update: Corrected attendance in the first graf; according to the Newport Daily News, there were close to 50 people in attendance. I was in the front row and missed some.