”Today, we say that when you pick a fight with any of us, you pick a fight with all of us! And that when you push us, we will push back!”
-speech by Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer, AFL-CIO, 10/26/1995
The American Labor Movement has progressed slowly and painfully through the last century. From this effort there have been many successful gains for the American worker. Perhaps the most significant would be the cornerstone of US labor law, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), sometimes called the Wagner Act. Here’s a short chronicle of events leading up to it being enacted by Congress. Before the passage of the NLRA in 1936, employers were free to spy on, interrogate, discipline, fire, and blacklist union members. During the Great Depression workers engaged in general strikes. On numerous fronts and workplaces they battled police and private security forces. They had next to no rights or privileges insured by law. After much effort by organized labor, benefits slowly evolved; 40 hours, vacation pay, medical benefits, weekends, etc. These are undeniable facts that come directly from efforts by unions & the American Labor Movement. But now union-busting groups and the politicians they own tend to interpret historical events in a light shaded toward management. They promote the idea that unions impeded the growth of American industries, increased costs, and hampered free-trade and capitalist principles, in general. Basically, that trade unionism was un-American. SO NOT TRUE! I feel that the best of today’s historians think Congress instigated the Wagner Act to steer unions away from potentially revolutionary confrontations. Because of the NLRA, by 1945 union contracts covered one third of the private sector workforce. A great wave of strikes hit the US in 1945-1946. Business interests petitioned Congress to amend the NLRA. This resulted in the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 that weakened many union protections. And then the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959 imposed additional restrictions. Our agenda for the future is clear: we need to continue to fight for and advance these workplace protections and, at the same time, create new strategies and tactics for the battles of the new century.
-ARE UNIONS DEAD?
Quite often these days you see reports saying UNIONS ARE DEAD. It is true, there has been a decline in unionized numbers. There is strong anti-union sentiment in all parts of this country backed by corporations. They feed off these reports. We must fight back against these anti-union arguments. The average person these days knows more of these “un-truths” than the real story of what benefits come from unions. Here are some facts and ideas for rebutting these common complaints against unions:
Corporations blame unions for rising prices of consumer goods, plant shutdowns and the decline of entire industries. But they never mention bad management decisions, or competition from state-subsidized nations, or corporations moving abroad to pay less wages, or corporate greed. Consider this, in the 1970’s, the average chief executive officer of a major corporation was paid 41 times what his average worker was paid. By 2004, the average CEO in a large corporation was paid a whopping 431 times what his company’s average hourly wage worker was paid. Mind blowing statistics, and still growing. Undeniable CORPORATE GREED.
-ALL UNIONS CORRUPT?
Yes, it’s true a few union leaders have been convicted of illegal activities. The vast majority of union leaders are honest and hard working folks. They have to be, unions are one of the most democratic institutions in the country. Union failings are nothing compared to what goes on in American business. I looked up some old numbers by the US Chamber of Commerce, and the estimate for the total cost of white collar crime in 1997 was $338 billion dollars. Keep in mind that the Chamber of Commerce is hardly an organization that wants to make US corporations look bad. And the numbers are higher today in.
The annual costs of anti-trust & trade violations is more that $250 billion. Compare that with all the Union dues collected in a year, approx. $7-$10 billion a/year. Corruption in big corporations makes all other things insignificant. Think greedy scandals with giants like Enron, Worldcom, Tyco, Adelphia, Global Crossing, and the banking scandals, to name a few. A good juicy corrupt union scandal gets all the media coverage. As long as corporations own the mass media, that’s the way it will be.
-UNIONS: ARE A SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP?
Of all the anti-union arguments, this is the worst. That we just cater to our own special group of unionized labor. Look at what unions have done for all Americans. Union support helped pass laws to achieve SOCIAL SECURITY, PUBLIC EDUCATION, UNEMPLOYMENT COMPENSATION, CIVIL RIGHTS, VOTING RIGHTS, AND WORKER SAFETY. Even after passing of ACA, Unions still continue to fight for HEALTHCARE for everybody. Unionized workers earn not only one third more on average than non-union, but also have more job security, health benefits, pensions, and protection against UNJUSTIFIED DISCIPLINE.
This reveals a simple truth: unions are good for ALL American workers. To make this point clear, John F. Kennedy spoke on this topic in one of his speeches on the Labor Movements in this country. To quote President Kennedy, “Our Labor Unions are not narrow, self-seeking groups. They have raised wages, shortened hours, and provided supplemental benefits. Through Collective Bargaining and Grievance Procedures, they have brought justice and democracy to the shop floor”.
-A CALL TO ARMS?
When you hear news on these topics from the media, try to discern the facts from a labor perspective. The gains made in this last century are significant. Now, as in the past, large corporations have made efforts to roll back any progress made for the American worker. It will take a concerted effort of all unionized workers to push back. Our strength is in our organized numbers, but individual efforts are crucial. Stand up and be counted. Join in the effort to PUSH BACK.