Labor unions have always been in the forefront of the national struggle for workers rights to organize, a living wage, safe workplaces, health and unemployment insurance, pensions, and countless other benefits we have come to take for granted. Many of these gains were won with the blood and other personal sacrifices of those workers who stood up to the depredations and often violent responses of their employers, who were frequently supported by local, state and national forces of law and order. Those early labor union battles need to be remembered and appropriately re-enacted if we are to take the country back from the corporate interests that again control it, their political and judicial allies, and the complicit or docile mainstream media. Unfortunately, expecting the gravely weakened unions to take the lead in todays struggle by themselves is unrealistic and unfair, although their full participation in the battle is essential.
The labor movement opened itself to criticism by the behavior of some of its leaders in the past that undermined its popular image and support defending the retention of unproductive workers, insisting on overly generous benefit packages, etc. Having some leaders who behaved like the corporate executives they were supposed to be fighting did not help their reputation either. But, anyone who knows anything about unions is fully aware of the fact that these were aberrations that distracted attention from the invaluable role they have played in promoting a higher standard of living and democracy, not only in the workplace but also for the country as a whole. At least in part because of their achievements, for decades they have been systematically and unfairly demonized by corporate interests, Right-wing politicians, and the mainstream media.
It is to be hoped that these sustained misrepresentations of what labor unions are and what they have fought for and achieved for all of us over the years will not result in a repetition today of the more extreme conditions that provoked their founding. Last years explosion at Massey Energys Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia that killed 29 people and the disastrous blowout at BPs Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico that claimed 11 lives are eerie reminders of events that occurred at the turn of the last century but are lacking the public outrage that earlier such incidents provoked. There was more media attention paid to the impact of the Gulf oil spill on the edibility and quality of seafood than the plight of the human victims of the probable criminal negligence involved. Does anyone even know their names?
Workplace deaths, injuries and illnesses were a fact of life in certain industries, as Philip Dray notes in his new book, There Is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America. While the mines, railroads, mills and factories accounted for the greatest number of deaths and injuries, no one has been safe from the shortcuts that were taken in pursuit of maximum profit. Last year was the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City that cost the lives of 146 workers (mostly young Jewish immigrant women) who were trapped in their workplace because their employers had barred the means of escape. Eyewitnesses to the tragedy which occurred as people were leaving work in Manhattan looked up at the upper floors of a burning building, saw a steady stream of girls pause helplessly amid the flames before jumping to their deaths on the sidewalk before their eyes.
The impact of the Triangle fire on the national psyche and on the organizing efforts of the unions cannot be overstated. Within five years, such unions as the International Ladies Garment Workers, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and several others had gained recognition and played a key role in securing from their employers the 45-hour week, paid vacations, unemployment and health insurance, and pensions. The miners, steel, textile and automobile workers, as well as the AFL and the IWW, all had to suffer their own versions of employer-inflicted inhumanity, violence, and multiple deaths and injuries before they secured recognition and some degree of workplace fairness and security. We owe all of them a great deal at the very least, to remember and honor them for their courage and sacrifice.
Social reformers like Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, Francis Perkins, Harry Hopkins and their allies, including the more progressive members of both major Parties, succeeded in having many of these workplace rights, that were initially secured by the unions, adopted by specific states and municipalities and, ultimately, enacted into Federal law, especially in the 1930s. These workplace rights were expanded, encoded, and enforced for the next 30 years until the Right Wing of the Republican Party in the 1970s and President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s mounted their systematic assault on ordinary working people, their families, and the people who sought to represent them. We are now experiencing the consequences of three decades of corporate deregulation, tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, a complete disregard for the poor and vulnerable, including children and sick people, and a disgraceful and unsustainable gap between the ultra-rich and everyone else.
All of this has been done in the name of supposedly well-established economic principles, originally laid out in the bible of the laissez-faire capitalists, namely Adam Smiths 1776 book, Wealth of Nations. However, those who claim to be Smiths most ardent disciples the Milton Friedmans, Alan Greenspans, Robert Rubins, Larry Summers, Henry Paulsons, Glenn Hubbards, and their like (most, incidentally, involved in a cozy and highly lucrative revolving door between universities, corporate board rooms, and Federal offices) seem, as is undoubtedly true for other devotees of this most-cited but least-read book in the world, never to have read it or been very selective in the lessons they have drawn from it. Smith would surely be appalled if he knew what was being done in his name. Far from advocating the type of unrestrained corporate behavior that is attributed to him by those who benefit most from that ethos, this long-time Professor of Moral Philosophy (not Economics, Finance or Entrepreneurship, please note) sought to develop a comprehensive philosophy of human nature and behavior that would best promote not only prosperity but also social responsibility and economic fairness. His present-day acolytes should not only read Wealth of Nations more carefully but also its companion volume, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which, together, were part of a long-term project of the Enlightenment to develop a comprehensive Science of Man, that included law, aesthetics, economics, history and ethics.
That the restoration of the power of the labor unions would be a huge benefit to the country at this time is undeniable and they should be supported and strengthened by the efforts of all of us who care about the American way of life and democracy itself. It will take a concerted effort of all persons with a sense of fairness to battle the rising tide of corporate greed, complicit politicians and judges, and irresponsible mass media.
Fortunately, Wisconsins million-signature recall campaign against its union-busting governor (and Koch Brothers-funded lackey) has demonstrated what energized union members and their outraged neighbors can accomplish. Similarly, the ability of the Occupy Wall Street movement to strike chords that resonated nationally with a large segment of the 99% of Americans whose voices and wellbeing have not counted is an encouraging development. There is hope, therefore, that effective progressive movements such as these, as in the past and with our wholehearted support, can save the country from the crony capitalists and the millionaire politicians who benefit hugely from doing their bidding.
Allan Brawley is Professor Emeritus of Social Work at Arizona State University, Scottsdale, Ariz. Email Allan.Brawley@asu.edu.
From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2012
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