[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that looks at work through a wider lens.
Due to computer issues during a vacation, I’m posting this entry on 9-10-11]
Labor Day, 2011
To play on a famous line from Dickens, this year has been the best of times for organized labor. It has also been the worst. Union members in Wisconsin and Ohio have risen up to protect their right to bargain collectively. At the same time, they have had to do this because governors in those states and many others have enacted laws that restrict workers’ rights. Too many working people still think the rich are the “job creators” and union wages/benefits hurt job growth.
Over the last two and a half years, my clients have told me stories about their lives, stories that illustrate how workers are treated by the “job creators.” Salaries have been cut. Benefits reduced again and again. Hours and responsibilities increased. In many ways, this period has just been an intensification of what has been happening in America for 30 years.
It’s too easy to blame one group (the Republicans) for this problem. While I’m no fan of the GOP, especially in its current form, Democrats have done little or nothing to help working people and organized labor. Yes, protections like the minimum wage and unemployment insurance are important. But so many factories have closed in the last 10 years. So many public employees have lost their jobs in the last two years. This disease cannot be cured with band aids.
Beyond politics, I think America suffers from two bigger problems: greed and resentment. We live in a culture where we want what our neighbor has – if not something bigger. When we fail to achieve that noble goal, we’re bitter. Public workers are victims of this cultural derangement. Workers in the private sector have been under siege for 30 years. They have lost pensions, sick days, fully paid health care. Now they look at public sector workers and resent the benefits negotiated in contracts over several years. Rather than join together to get more, many private sector employees want to take away from teachers, fire fighters, and police officers. Meanwhile, those who profit most from this worker-on-worker battle smile and cash their checks.
The workers’ rights movement of the 1930s really started by economic downturns in the 1890s. Only when the system collapsed in the Great Depression did workers join together in a way that brought real change. I hope we don’t have to face another crisis like that to change the current attitudes toward unions and labor. This problem will not be solved by politics and programs. This country needs to change its outlook. It needs to value the people who do the work, not those who profit from the labor of others.