|ONLINE VERSION||VOLUME 106 - NUMBER 12 - DECEMBER 1997|
|Remembering Labor's Gifts to Working People|
|By Jim Wright, Former Speaker U.S. House of
In reviewing the role of organized labor in our nation, it is important to reflect upon some half-forgotten truths and apply them to the future.
Here is a thought that corporate leaders should consider: American democracy has succeeded largely because of its inclusiveness. American capitalism has been successful because working families have participated in its fruits and shared in the country's prosperity, enjoying sufficient income to buy the goods that workers and American businesses have turned out.
It wasn't always easy. The worker's right to sit at the table, socially or economically, is a hard-won product of long and sometimes bitter struggle. It is the crowning achievement of cumulative generations of persistent endeavor and the distinguishing mark of a civilized society.
In our own country, the trade union movement arose out of the same impulse for social justice that gave birth to the American Revolution. In the 1830s, the "workingmen's associations" demanded free public schools, availability of credit and other reforms that came together as Jacksonian democracy.
The free workers' associations, according to American historian Max Lerner, agitated for the freedom of plantation slaves and became the mass core of the abolitionist movement. But it was not until the 1880s, under the leadership of Samuel Gompers, that American labor began to emerge as a cohesive nationwide movement in the American Federation of Labor.
Labor's critics have portrayed Gompers as greedy and demanding, often quoting out of context the single cry, "Labor wants more!" They oversimplify, to their own discredit. What Gompers actually said is preserved in a prominent metal plaque along the riverwalk in downtown San Antonio:
"What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures, to make manhood more noble, womanhood more beautiful and childhood more happy and bright."
Thanks in part to labor's influence, child labor was eliminated, sweatshops abolished, Social Security inaugurated, minimum-wage laws passed and government standards raised to guarantee prevailing wages and safer places of work. Not just union members but every employee in the workplace has benefitted.
Through peaceful collective bargaining, made official policy by the National Labor Relations Act, such benefits as employee retirement programs and health care coverage, once virtually nonexistent, have become fairly commonplace. Millions of Americans enjoy a richer and more secure life, unaware of their debt to early trade unionists who braved firings, blacklistings, billy clubs and social ostracism to make for today's workers a place at America's table.
About 20 years back, due in part to its own success (people no longer felt they needed unions) and in part to arrogance or greed exhibited by a few union leaders, the labor movement began a slow decline. The portion of the work force belonging to unions fell from 24 percent in 1977 to 14 percent today.
An illegal strike by air traffic controllers in 1981 soured public opinion and President Reagan's administration began actively encouraging government contractors to get hard-nosed with labor, squeezing its negotiators to the wire on wages and benefits.
Partly as a result of unionism's eclipse, ordinary wages began to stagnate, and then to fall when adjusted for inflation. By 1995, weekly wages for midlevel employees had dropped by 10 percent and for part-time and contract workers by 22 percent. Where one bread-earner had sufficed, two now were working . Increasingly both were moonlighting with calamitous effect upon family life and children's nurture and discipline.
Now America's labor movement, spurred by necessity and heartened by polls showing 2-to-1 public support, is entering a new, dynamic phase. The Teamsters' 15-day bargaining session with United Parcel Service yielded satisfying results: the pension fund intact and upgraded pay and benefits for 10,000 longtime, part-timers. The Communications Workers of America on September 29 posted the largest private sector organizing win in a decade when nearly 9,000 U.S. Airways passenger service representatives voted for union representation.
Labor is presenting new images of intelligent, articulate, younger and more attractive leadership. At a time of soaring profits and stagnating wages, its voice is sorely needed.
From AIL Labor Agenda October 1997