Joseph McCartin ’81 Speaks on the 21st Century Labor Question

Joseph Abrams ’23

Chief News Editor

A little over forty years ago, Joseph McCartin joined the rest of the class of ‘81 on the hill for the first semester of their freshman year. With hopes of being a doctor, McCartin believed he knew what he wanted from his four years on the hill. However, as many of us can attest to, the plethora of valuable liberal arts courses offered at Holy Cross drew him in a different direction. After a line of great history professors, McCartin graduated with a degree in history and now follows in their footsteps with a position at Georgetown University. On Tuesday, McCartin made his return to campus for an incredibly relevant presentation on the state of democracy in American politics and workplaces. 

McCartin began his presentation by defining the incredibly uncertain state of our democracy. Many of us have probably had our own discussions, both on campus and off, surrounding the election fraud claims that rocked the 2020 election and threaten the coming midterms. Adjacent to the worries about the strength of our democratic institutions have been a resurgence in the expectations of employees, with companies like Amazon and Starbucks finally succumbing to small-scale unionization. McCartin himself offers a number of plausible reasons for this change in employee attitude, including the changing expectations brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic or the seemingly unlimited rule that employees now have over their employees. However, McCartin sees the side-by-side trajectory of political democracy and workplace democracy as one that informs the other: as political democracy has expanded, so has freedom in the workplace.

The story starts, according to McCartin, with World War I and the first sizable wave of backlash against industrial working conditions. McCartin points to the Protocol of Peace, a 1910 agreement between the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the employers of women garment workers that addressed employee grievances, as one of the first major decisions to give workers their rights back. This, along with the establishment of the Committee on Industrial Relations in 2012, marked the beginning of a half-century long fight for progressive worker rights. Public policy gradually became more inclined to help labor classes during the first and second World War, where the efforts of workers increased alongside suffrage movements to expand the political power of minorities and women. This hand-in-hand progressivism continued during the Civil Rights Era, where the desegregation of society was fought for alongside the rights of employees in the public sector, which was previously more rigorous compared to the changing private sector.

So, things were looking up right? Well, in what McCartin referred to as the “long ‘70s”, things took a turn for the worst. In his discussion, the professor referenced numerous graphs that showed the number of strikes and labor board elections plummeting during this decade, including a relatively stagnant increase in wages. So what happened? According to Professor McCartin, the air traffic controller strike in 1981 became progressive labor’s biggest problem. Then President Ronald Reagan was less forgiving when it came to labor woes when he came into office, so when more than 12,000 air traffic controllers went on strike to garner better working conditions, Reagan quickly sought replacements who would accept the conditions that other workers were refusing. Upon seeing this stern refusal of labor rights, the rest of the public and private sector followed suit. Suddenly, the risk of being quickly replaced hung ominously over the heads of discontented workers.

Despite this, McCortin finds hope in some of the contemporary efforts to humble companies like Amazon and Starbucks. Both companies face a wave of interest in unionization, but, as McCortin stated, the consequences in place to discourage unfair and illegal workplace conditions simply aren’t strong enough. Plus, new technologies have allowed employers to encroach further onto the rights and personal lives of their workers, allowing them to monitor activity and undergo invasive background checks. The midterm elections, perhaps, may provide a better glimpse into the future of the American worker and voter.

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