Unions have been fighting the 1% vs 99% fight for more than 100 years. Now the rest of us are learning that this fight is also OUR fight.
The story of organized labor has been a story of working people banding together to confront concentrated wealth and power. Unions have been fighting to get decent wages, benefits, better working conditions, on-the-job safety and respect. Now, as the Reagan Revolution comes home to roost, taking apart the middle class, the rest of us are learning that this is our fight, too.
The story of America is a similar story to that of organized labor. The story of America is a story of We, the People banding together to fight the concentrated wealth and power of the British aristocracy. Our Declaration of Independence laid it out: we were fighting for a government that derives its powers from the consent of us, the people governed, not government by a wealthy aristocracy telling us what to do and making us work for their profit instead of for the betterment of all of us. It was the 99% vs the 1% then, and it is the 99% vs the 1% now.
We, the People
Democracy is when We, the People decide things together — collectively — for the common good of all of us. Our country originated from the idea of We, the People banding together to watch out for and protect each other, so we can all rise together for the common good, or “general welfare.” Collectively we make decisions, and the result of this collective action is decisions that work for all of us instead of just a few of us. This is the founding idea of our country.
Unions Protect The Interests Of Working People
The same is true for unions. Unions work to bring We-the-People democracy to the workplace. Like the old story about how it is harder to break a bundle of sticks than the same sticks one stick at a time, unions are organizations of working people, banding together so their collective power can confront the power of concentrated wealth. By banding together in solidarity, working people are able to say, “No, you can’t do that!,” and bargain for a better life for all of us.
Organized Labor Sets The Standard
The benefits that unions win don’t just go to the union members, they become the standard. When labor won the fight for an 8-hour day and 40-hour workweek with overtime pay, that became the standard. When labor fought for minimum wages, that became the standard, when labor fought for workplace safety, that became the standard. Labor’s fight is a fight to set the standard for the rest of us.
Labor stands up to the 1%, and uses their organized power (bundle of sticks) to win better pay, benefits and working conditions for the 99%.
“Although it is true that only about 20 percent of American workers are in unions, that 20 percent sets the standards across the board in salaries, benefits and working conditions. 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.”
– Molly Ivins.
Working people banding together to bargain with management — “collective” bargaining — is a fundamental right in the United States, but this right has eroded along with the rest of our democracy. For many years, the mechanisms of government that were supposed to enforce these rights were “captured” and instead were working against the rights of working people. Bob Borosage explains, in, The Forgotten Leading Actor In The American Dream Story,
Globalization gave manufacturers a large club in negotiations—concessions or jobs get shipped abroad. And often the reality was concessions AND jobs got shipped abroad. Corporations perfected techniques, often against the law, to crush organizing drives, and stymie new contracts for the few that succeeded. The National Labor Relations Board, stacked with corporate lobbyists under Republican presidents, turned a blind eye to systematic violations of the law.
So now union workers are down to about 7 percent of the private workforce. Virtually the only growing unions are public employees— teachers, nurses, cops. Not surprisingly, conservative Republican governors, led by Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Ohio’s John Kasich, used the budget squeeze caused by the Great Recession to go after these unions, combining layoffs with efforts to eviscerate the right of public employees to organize and negotiate.
The Fight Is On
“Only a fool would try to deprive working men and working women of their right to join the union of their choice.”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Dorian Warren, at Salon in America’s last hope: A strong labor movement, writes,
The fate of the labor movement is the fate of American democracy. Without a strong countervailing force like organized labor, corporations and wealthy elites advancing their own interests are able to exert undue influence over the political system, as we’ve seen in every major policy debate of recent years.
Yet the American labor movement is in crisis and is the weakest it’s been in 100 years. That truism has been a progressive mantra since the Clinton administration. However, union density has continued to decline from roughly 16 percent in 1995 to 11.8 percent of all workers and just 6.9 percent of workers in the private sector. Unionized workers in the public sector now make up the majority of the labor movement for the first time in history, which is precisely why — a la Wisconsin and 14 other states — they have been targeted by the right for all out destruction.
… Contrary to the intent of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which made it national policy to encourage and promote collective bargaining, the NLRA now provides incentives for employers to break the law routinely and ignore any compulsion to negotiate collective agreements. When there is little outrage for the daily violations of workers’ liberty (employers fire workers illegally in 1 in 3 union campaigns for attempting to exercise freedom of association), our democracy is in peril.
Restore The Middle Class
Unions brought us a middle class, and now that the power of organized labor has eroded we find ourselves in a fight to keep the middle class. Borosage again,
We emerged from World War II with unions headed towards representing about 30% of the workforce. Fierce struggles with companies were needed to ensure that workers got a fair share of the rewards of their work. Unions were strong enough that non-union employers had to compete for good workers by offering comparable wages. Unions enforced the 40-hour week, overtime pay, paid vacations, health care and pensions, and family wages. Strong unions limited excesses in corporate boardrooms, a countervailing power beyond the letter of the contract. As profits and productivity rose, wages rose as well.
When unions were weakened and reduced, all that changed. Productivity and profits continued to rise, but wages did not. The ratio of CEO pay to the average worker pay went from 40 to 1 to more than 350 to 1. CEOs were given multimillion-dollar pay incentives to cook their books and merge and purge their companies. Unions were not strong enough to police the excess. America let multinationals define its trade and manufacturing strategy, hemorrhaging good jobs to mercantilist nations like China.
The result was the wealthiest few captured literally all the rewards of growth. And 90% of America struggled to stay afloat with stagnant wages, rising prices and growing debt.
Support Bargaining Rights For Labor
We all need to understand that labor’s fight is our fight. Now that labor is under attack across the country, we need to understand that we are also under attack. As labor loses rights and power, all of our pay and benefits fall back. We need to support the rights of working people to organize into unions and bargain collectively, to fight our fight, the 99% vs the 1%. This battle right now is the whole ball game.
“To a right-winger, unions are awful. Why do right-wingers hate unions? Because collective bargaining is the power that a worker has against the corporation. Right-wingers hate that.”
– Janeane Garofalo
Dave Johnson (Redwood City, CA) is a Fellow at Campaign for America's Future, writing about American manufacturing, trade and economic/industrial policy. He is also a Senior Fellow with Renew California. Dave has more than 20 years of technology industry experience including positions as CEO and VP of marketing. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. And he was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.
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