Next Monday, September 7th, is Labor Day. Millions of Americans will be celebrating their three day weekend shopping sales on the internet, and at retail outlets, and putting their white slacks and sport jackets away for the winter.
Unfortunately, today few Americans understand the true meaning of Labor Day. Labor Day was established by an act of Congress in 1894. The act designated the first Monday of September as a day to recognize and celebrate the efforts of American workers. This act was not a gift given freely by an appreciative government. It took the organizing of labor, that demanded safer working conditions, an end to child labor practices, and a shorter work week, among other things, to create the holiday. In other words, it took unions.
Unions have been getting a bad rap for several decades now, some of it justified, some of it oversimplified and some of it counterproductive to all workers. The American public began to turn on unions because they were perceived as corrupt, a prime example being Jimmy Hoffa, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) in the 1970’s, and his ties to organized crime figures. Many non union workers were jealous of union workers because they made more money, a sentiment that prevails even today. Prolonged union strikes began to affect workers in other industries that had nothing to do with the striker’s demands, furthering resentment among non union workers. Where the unions over-reached and created a bad image also was having the power to change work rules that limited production and increased costs.
These were all valid arguments that unions had obtained too much power and were hurting America’s industrial mite.
By demonizing unions industrialists were able to take more control of how the government handled union activists. As early as 1947 when Congress passed a large number of changes to the National Labor Relations Act which had given labor bargaining power via the Wagner Act during the Depression. The new law was called the Taft Hartley Act of 1947. This law opened the gates for what employers were allowed to do.
The new law…..
1. permitted states to prohibit union shop contracts which allowed non-union members to get the benefits of unions.
2. outlawed the closed shop in which a person must be in the union to get a job. The long Shore Union was an exception
3. permitted employees to file decertification petitions and allowed employers to file election petitions.
4. prohibited unions from using secondary boycotts
5. permitted the President to nullify a strike if he thought it was a national emergency
6. prohibited strikes by federal workers
7. protected employer free speech giving the employer the right to hold private meetings with employees
While the Taft-Hartley Act may seem like it protected the rights of non union employees, and in some cases the security of the country, what it really did was limit unions from using collective bargaining as a tool in many cases. Industry took the Taft-Hartley Act as a signal that it could further attack workers rights to collective bargaining. The attack on collective bargaining rights continues today and many States have even passed laws prohibiting collective bargaining completely. Georgia, N. Carolina, S. Carolina, Texas and Virginia have outlawed collective bargaining by public sector unions. It’s ironic that, with the exception of Virginia, all those States rank 20th or lower in median income.
The effort to modify or control labor laws goes on today. In December 2014 the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a rule “to modernize disputes involving election in which workers are seeking to be represented by unions. Mitch McConnell the Senate Majority leader called it, “an ambush rule that strengthens the power of unions” and vowed to repeal the rule. Jay Timmons the CEO of the National Association of Manufactures (NAM), said NLRB is “getting ready to trample the rights of American workers.” (quotes from Forbes business section March 19, 2015). On the contrary the NLRB rule is to empower workers to organize and the criticisms of Jay Timmons and Mitch McConnell are simply examples of Orwellian Newspeak. The ability of corporate CEO’s and their lobbyists are doing an excellent job of muddying the water and using divisive language to turn worker against worker. Those people do not have the American workers best interest in mind. Their concern is to keep labor cheap. PERIOD.
Congress reacts to money not people. Industry and corporations contribute millions of dollars annually to congressional campaigns and lobbyists to influence policy. By 1980 the big corporations began increasing their influence on Congress by pouring money into lobbying and hiring thousands of lobbyists. Two of their primary goals were to get rid of or weaken unions and reduce labor costs. It worked very well and in the last 30 years they have been very successful at either blocking or weakening any legislation that would help unions or collective bargaining.
Today very few workers are in unions and as the older workers retire the new workers do not understand the history of unions and why they came about in the first place. This has led to less empathy for union workers and less public support. In the 1950’s union membership accounted for 33% of the American work force. Today that number is down to 1 in 10 workers.
Today we take for granted the many accomplishments unions have made for all workers. The 40 hour work week, minimum wage, safety standards, paid leave and holidays, child labor laws and medical benefits are just a few things we have to thank unions for.
Its organization of workers that will bring back a strong middle class not tax breaks for corporations. Sure, in the past unions grew too large and powerful and exploited their influence, but now the tables have turned completely in favor of industry. As union membership declined so did wages. A strong economy is based on consumption and with wages stagnant or declining, purchasing power has fallen to an all time low. More Americans are relying on credit to make purchases instead of using cash. Credit debt in turn makes consumers spend money on high interest rates further reducing purchasing power.
America has become an oligarchy controlled by a small wealthy class. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) opined in a 2010 The Nation article that an “upper-crust of extremely wealthy families are hell-bent on destroying the democratic vision of a strong middle-class which has made the United States the envy of the world. In its place they are determined to create an oligarchy in which a small number of families control the economic and political life of our country.”] The top 1% in 2007 had a larger share of total income than at any time since 1928. In 2011, according to PolitiFact and others, the top 400 wealthiest Americans “have more wealth than half of all Americans combined.”
Collective bargaining is the epitome of democracy; without it we are slaves to the whims of the masters of the so called “job creators”. Jobs are created by the economic principle of consumption and production. The more disposable income workers have, the more they spend on housing and products. The more they spend the more jobs are needed to keep up with the production and consumption of good and services. Those are the things that drive an economy.