Why Labor Unions Are Worth Saving

“The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.”  Martin Luther King Jr. —Speech to the state convention of the Illinois AFL-CIO, Oct. 7, 1965

Last night the voters in Wisconsin held an election to recall Governor Scott Walker. Walker campaigned as a moderate candidate in 2010, but once elected governed as a right wing despot. Walker’s signature legislative accomplishment was stripping most public workers of nearly all their collective bargaining rights. Walker proclaimed the measure was needed to help balance the State’s budget, but footage of Walker released shortly after his election showed him talking to his big money political donors where he describes a “divide and conquer” strategy for taking on unions by first going after public employees’ collective bargaining rights.

Walker stated: “For too long, a handful of special interests controlled things at the state and the local level. I wanted to stand up and fight on behalf of the hardworking taxpayers. We have firmly put the taxpayers of this state back in charge of the state and local governments. That’s a fight I’ll continue to have.”

I find it interesting that Walker would describe Unions as special interest groups when his campaigned was largely financed by outside special interest groups with one thing in mind which is the destruction of Unions. A recent Forbes article describes how Wisconsin’s Governor has out-raised opponent Tom Barrett, the Mayor of Milwaukee, by almost 8 to one: $30.5 million to Barrett’s $3.9 million, due to outside millionaire and billionaire donors.

We should not stand a side as the Republican Party and Big Business plot to destroy public and private Unions. Unions have been the great protector of the working class for decades and their preservation is needed if the middle class is going to make a return.  Here are a few labor union accomplishments over the last century according to The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Labor Union:

– Passage of the Social Security Act (1935): This New Deal legislation provided workers with unemployment insurance, aid to dependent children and rehabilitation for the physically disabled. It also improved public health and provided pensions to workers in their old age.

– National Labor Relations Act (1935): Also known as the “Wagner Act,” this law served as the foundation for current U.S. labor law, granting unions the right to organize and obligating employers to bargain collectively on hours, wages and other terms and conditions of employment.

– Civil Rights Act/Title VII (1964): This landmark legislation prohibited discrimination by employers or unions on the basis of race, national origin, color, religion or gender.

– Fair Labor Standards Act (1938): The FLSA granted sweeping protections to workers — establishing a minimum wage (25 cents an hour) and the 8-hour work day, providing for overtime, and prohibiting the use of child labor in all businesses engaged in interstate commerce.

– Occupational Safety & Health Act (1970): Providing a safe workplace had been a primary goal of the labor movement since its inception. Many years later, President Nixon — a conservative Republican — was convinced to sign the first comprehensive federal legislation covering safety in the workplace.

In 1968, the share of income going to the nation’s middle class was 53.2 percent, when 28 percent of all workers were members of unions. Since then, union membership steadily declined alongside the share of income going to the middle class. By 2010, the middle class only received 46.5 percent of income as union membership dropped to less than 12 percent of workers. As unions weakened, the lion’s share of the economy’s gains has gone to the wealthy. The share of pretax income earned by the richest 1 percent of Americans more than doubled between 1974 and 2007, climbing to 23 percent from 9 percent. Their share of income quadrupled over this period, rising to 12.3 percent of all income from 2.7 percent. Without strong unions, the middle class has lost out to the wealthy (David Madland & Nick Bunker “As Unions Weaken So Does the Middle Class”).

Unions have given us unemployment insurance, Social Security, minimum wage, the 8-hour workday, and safety in the work place. It is no coincidence that as Unions declined so has the middle and working class; we should fight to preserve the rights of public and private workers from greedy corporations and bureaucrats.

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