Labor leader Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO has condemned both the Republicans and Democrats for doing nothing to help working people. Trumka’s language is very strong. He uses the kind of words working people use in describing our Wall-Street dominated economy. While union membership is shrinking, Trumka is still a powerful figure, someone the President and the Democrats must listen to.
June 10, 2011
May 27, 2011
Common Dreams features a post by labor historian David Zonderman who offers three reasons why all workers should support labor unions. Zonderman reminds us that things we take for granted (8 hour day, benefits, weekends) only came to be because of labor struggles. He also raises a frightening thought: What if there were no unions? Where would you put your money: the worker or the boss?
Unions function to protect employees. Yes, sometimes they might protect a “bad” employee. But what about the bad boss or bad company owner? Who protects us from them? For a lucky few, unions.
March 27, 2011
The U.S. Department of Labor has a great resource page on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. 146 workers – most women – died because they were locked in a nine story building that broke out in flames. Doors were locked because their managers wanted to stop petty theft of felt scrap that could be resold.
Two years later, conditions improved at the plant. Why? Because the International Ladies Garment Workers Union went on strike. We need to remember such heroes, especially when we have “leaders” like Governor Scott Walker.
March 9, 2011
Huffington Post reports on a historical reenactment of a labor protest in Chicago in 1915. As photos from the event show, issues that haunted this country 95 years ago are back again: hunger, unemployment, and poverty. What’s most interesting is that the city’s current unemployment rate (10.5%) is higher than what it was in 1915. This kind of event brings history to life and reminds us how labor activists fought for rights that are now being stripped away across the U.S.
The group that organized this event is Pocketguide to Hell.
February 21, 2011
[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that explores work and life.]
Remembering What Was Gained – and Lost
Once upon a time, working people in America lived at the mercy of their employers. They labored twelve hours or more, often in unsafe conditions, with no minimum wage. The people who worked then were different too. Children and women toiled for low wages, often in the most brutal environments. Old people clung to their jobs as long as their bodies allowed because they had no Social Security or pension funds. The generations who built this country in the 19th century also included slaves and immigrants who were treated as slaves.
The middle class that so many Americans look to as proof of what makes this country special really bloomed in the 1950s and 1960s. It came to be in large part because working people organized and demanded their rights from both employers and the government. What made the middle class? A 40 hour work week that let people have time for life outside of their jobs. Minimum wage laws and union contracts that raised salaries for working people and let them buy a home or send their kids to college. Pension funds and Social Security that let people retire without living in poverty. Workplace safety rules that kept people from being killed and maimed on the job. Public schools and state universities that let many Americans get the education was once available only to the privileged.
What has happened over the last 30 years [A.R., After Reagan]? Has the middle class disappeared? No, but membership in that club is becoming more expensive. Most families rely on having two bread winners, often with multiple jobs. Few people work 40 hours. Those that are paid well work 50 hours or more. Those with low-paying jobs scramble for hours, going from part-time job to part-time job. In the 1970s, factories started to close and that trend has accelerated through the first decade of the 21st century. Unions have become less influential as their membership has declined with industrial America. Now public sector workers are a target because they are said to make too much. Maybe the real problem is that non-union working people have given up too much or had too much taken from them.
Large business interests and their agents (a.k.a. politicians from both parties and the corporate-owned media) have collaborated to move wealth and power to those who have the most. We are told by conservatives that the wealthy “make” jobs or “give” jobs. If that’s true, why have so many jobs been offshored, so many factories closed? Greed, naked greed.
What’s wrong with a me-first philosophy? Isn’t that part of our freedom as Americans? No, it’s not. The first 15 words of the Constitution (so loved by the Tea Party) clearly say that we’re in this together: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union.” The Libertarian myth that has come to dominate conservative thinking goes against the most basic American values. This country was founded by leaders who understood the need for “common defence” and “general Welfare” – things we share.
America after Reagan still can claim economic wealth and displays of consumer freedom: SUVs, flat screen TVs, and iPads. But what freedoms have we lost that our grandparents enjoyed? Stable employment. A good wage. Time off to enjoy life. Protection from a boss or company that went too far. Unions have not been perfect, but they helped working people (most of whom were not union members) live a better life. They also recognized that working people shared a responsibility to help and protect each other – solidarity. Too often in today’s work world, each individual is alone, looking over his or her shoulder, afraid.
This last week’s protests in Madison probably won’t stop Governor Walker from further limiting worker rights. Other states will follow his example. What the rallies in Wisconsin show is that working people can fight back. We have to remember the history of labor, how men and women sacrificed and died to improve how workers are treated in this country. Then comes the hard part – fighting for our rights and freedoms. The teachers and union members in Wisconsin have shown the way. Will others follow their example?
Editorial Note: On Saturdays, I will write posts under the title, “Bread and Roses – Our Heritage” that will focus on labor history. Monday through Friday, posts will continue to examine careers and related issues.
Sunday Extra Helpings:
A great website with links to labor history sites
The AFL-CIO’s Labor History Page
A Labor History Timeline from the University of Hawaii
This day in labor history
Child Labor – from the History Channel
February 18, 2011
January 18, 2011
I was listening to the radio today and heard a shrill conservative commentator (I didn’t catch his name) say, “The union model is broken. We don’t need unions anymore.” He continued that unions had a place when children worked in sweatshops.
I’ve heard other conservatives (and a few corporate liberals) make similar claims. What they don’t point out is that the wages and benefits of American workers have dropped just as union membership has. It’s not a question of child labor, but one of two working parents not having enough to feed their families or pay the mortgage.
So why aren’t unions more popular? James Surowiecki, writing in the New Yorker, explores many reasons why public opinion has turned on organized labor. I thought the most interesting was “pension envy,” a term coined by Olivia Mitchell, a professor at the Wharton School of Business. Since most workers don’t have pensions, they resent union members for having them. The logic is: if I can’t have it, you shouldn’t either.
The sad part of such thinking is that it blames working people for wanting a good wage and security. Unions fought for worker rights that went far beyond salary. Unions won the 40 hour week (which few workers have today). They fought for safe working conditions and security in retirement through pensions. Now most workers have 401K that are sure to benefit only one group: Wall Street. Wages have fallen in many industries. And workers have nowhere to turn when employers take advantage of them. Moreover, union workers in the auto industry and education have taken pay and benefit cuts to help their employers. That’s not part of the meme spread by the corporate-owned media.
Americans don’t know who Walter Reuther was. They don’t know about Eugene V. Debs or the I.W.W. Instead, they hear propaganda about unions costing America jobs, and they believe it. We ignore the people who shipped jobs overseas so their already large fortunes could grow even bigger. Something is broken in America. It’s not the unions.
September 5, 2010
[“Sabbath” is Career Calling’s examination of work and life beyond jobs and career.]
A Day for Labor
Labor Day has become just another day off. A time for picnics, shopping for back to school clothes, and a last blast of summer. We’ve forgotten the origin of the day. Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894 when President Grover Cleveland wanted peace with labor after the Pullman Strike in Chicago. Unions celebrated the day with festivals and speeches.
The labor movement brought working people security and prosperity. Generations expected the 40 hour week. If asked to work beyond that time, employees were paid overtime. They paid into pensions along with employers. That benefit has been replaced by fickle investment gimmicks like IRAs in which employees make the greatest contributions. 83% of employees still receive health care as part of their pay, but they are paying a greater share of that cost. The benefits unions fought for and won are disappearing.
Somehow, despite this history, many working Americans see unions as part of the problem. They believe unions drive up the cost of labor, which leads to unemployment. What this perspective ignores is the responsibility of employers and government in sending jobs to countries where labor is cheap and there are few regulations to protect workers or the environment.
In a blog the AFL CIO outlines the problems facing working people today. There are 15 million unemployed Americans, a daunting number. Even worse, a study is cited that says “the median income for an average working household fell between 2000 and 2007 by more than $2,000.” Based on these findings, Labor Day 2010 is not a day many Americans should celebrate.
Working people need to look beyond the petty terms of politics and focus on what we share in common. Most Americans work for a living. Many are now working two or more jobs just to get by. Others are living in fear that they will be laid off or that their salary will be cut. These issues aren’t Democratic or Republican. All of us have bills to pay. We all want to have some extra money to spend or save. That’s hard when there is so much uncertainty.
Maybe this Labor Day would be a good time to take a few minutes and reflect on working in America, how it was in our parents’ and grandparents’ time, how it is now, and how it can be in the future. Working Americans are more productive than ever before, and their pay is falling. They have no job security. They are paying more and more of their health care.
Once upon a time, work was respected and rewarded in this country. Now it seems like those who work are a burden on the employer and investor class. The drive for profit outweighs the needs of people. Working people need to stand together. We need to stand up.
June 20, 2010
Writing in the Nation, Amy Traub analyzes the campaign right wing commentators and think tanks are waging against unionized public sector workers. Traub points out how many of the claims of “overpaid” union workers are silly. Sadly, however, even some Democrats like New York’s Andrew Cuomo say, “We are going to be tangling with public employee unions.” Follow this link to read Traub’s article. Even if you disagree with the argument, it is a perspective worth considering.