It is essential that there should be organization of labor. This is an era of organization. Capital organizes and therefore labor must organize.
– Theodore Roosevelt, Republican and 26th US President
At least once a week, I hear the anecdote that unions were once great and necessary and they made wonderful progress for the working class and then the job was done and the unions became worthless to society. The long list of organized labor’s various accomplishments is well-known, including this partial list from Barack Obama:
It was the labor movement that helped secure so much of what we take for granted today. The 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, family leave, health insurance, Social Security, Medicare, retirement plans. The cornerstones of the middle-class security all bear the union label.
To hear most modern conservatives (and even moderates and a few who identify as progressive), the need for workers to remain organized ended with OSHA and a minimum wage that doesn’t even adjust for the cost of living. The theory is that these “damn union thugs” making “sixty thousand dollars a year” are asking for far too much and it’s cutting into American profitability, but even that mindset is easily countered by Boris Block of UE:
“When employers in this country say labor costs are too high, what they’re really saying to you is, you have it too good. What they’re really saying to you is, all you need is enough to get you into the plant and work.”
The idea that production line workers are asking for too much at sixty thousand a year while their CEO makes sixty thousand a day is, on its face, anti-American. The concept of the multi-millionaire owners of capital and the struggling working class is not what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they stood against the crown and strived to create a more equitable society. No less a man than Thomas Paine, oft-misquoted by the like of Glenn Beck, believed in a progressive income tax that had a very steep curve:
Admitting that any annual sum, say, for instance, one thousand pounds, is necessary or sufficient for the support of a family, consequently the second thousand is of the nature of a luxury, the third still more so, and by proceeding on, we shall at last arrive at a sum that may not improperly be called a prohibitable luxury.
In modern and simplistic English, Paine was stating that there shall be little to no taxation on the first segment of income deemed sufficient to cover the basic needs of a family; from there, higher segments of income should be taxed in ever-higher brackets until the point where one man has made so much that any further allowable income would be contrary to the principles of American social justice.
What, then, of the entrepreneurial spirit, the American dream of becoming rich? What is the motivation to become a billionaire in a nation which caps income? Well, the fact is that the American dream was never to be unbelievably rich… the American dream was to become financially stable in a socially equitable society. Merriam-Webster defines it as “an American social ideal that stresses egalitarianism and especially material prosperity.” There is nothing in the original American dream about material excess because the original Americans strongly believed that it was every citizen’s duty to look out for the good of the country. Benjamin Franklin:
All the Property that is necessary to a Man, for the Conservation of the Individual and the Propagation of the Species, is his natural Right… But all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick. …He that does not like civil Society on these Terms, let him retire and live among Savages. He can have no right to the benefits of Society, who will not pay his Club toward the Support of it.
When a candidate for president has plans to bulldoze his $12 million dollar palace on the beach in California and replace it with an 11,000 square foot compound, we see how far we’ve come from the days of land owned by the People. But then a thought occurs… where will the Romney family stay while their home is being rebuilt? Why, they’ll stay on their eleven acre “summer house” on a lake in New Hampshire.
Did I mention that this man made his millions from subversion of the working class? I don’t think I need to cite this one; his exploits (pun intended) at Bain are pretty well-known. He made millions through putting hard workers on the unemployment line, sometimes requiring them to build the stage he later used to lay them off. Do you wonder how a man like Mitt Romney celebrates Labor Day?
Back to the Point: Where Do We Go From Here?
So we know why we should be angry. Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows plenty of reasons to be angry, but where does organized labor stand? What is currently happening to workers’ rights? Did the Citizens United decision allow unions to amplify their message, as so many corporation-apologists have suggested?
Drop by Google News and type in “right to work laws.” These laws, already active in 23 of our 50 states, allow corporations to conveniently bypass the union, hiring scabs that are willing to give up their rights as a worker and damage workers’ rights across the board. The articles paint a different picture though, don’t they? Here’s what I see. Employees benefit? The economy gets a boost?
Let’s break this down. The corporation works as one cohesive, large and powerful unit. The employees act as individuals working toward their own self-interest, one versus one thousand. The bargaining power is clearly in the hands of the corporation, until the ten thousand employees organize, and suddenly they level the playing field with a contract between the workers and the owners… until your bosses throw a few million at a legislator and that legislator creates and law that allows them to hire people outside of the contract between the workers and the owners, and you’re right back where you started. Your contract is marginalized as the company hires around you and it’s back to one versus one thousand, just the way the company likes it.
Oh, but the corporate media says it’s good for you. Want to respond? Remind them of this, from political commentator Molly Ivins:
“If you are making a decent salary in a non-union company, you owe that to the unions. One thing that corporations do not do is give out money out of the goodness of their hearts.”
Even if you’re one of those folks who needs work badly enough to cross union lines and join an employer outside of their union contract, your wages are higher because of the work of that union. You have the power to make the working class even stronger… we’ve come a long way since the Haymarket Affair, but as long as we have workers laid off to pad the bottom line, as long as we have wages that don’t even cover food and shelter, we still have a long way to go… and you can be a part of it.
All it takes is the willpower to stand when you encounter an injustice. It doesn’t need to be a union… it doesn’t even need to be the threat of a union. All it really needs to be is workers standing together, contract or not, to face down unjust actions wherever they occur. Or to put it another way:
“If the workers are organized, all they have to do is to put their hands in their pockets and they have got the capitalist class whipped.” — William Dudley Haywood, a founder and leader of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)
Happy Labor Day, and don’t forget those who’ve fought to help you get where you are today.