Reasons to thank our unions
Looking forward to the weekend? You can thank labor unions for that, along with your safe work place, benefits (if you’re lucky enough to have them), a minimum wage, and having our kids in schools not factories. We now take these union-led reforms, like 8-hour work days, minimum wage, safe work environments, paid vacations, collective bargaining, and even childhood for granted. Workers and unions fought, sacrificed, and sometimes died in an ongoing struggle that lasted over a century to wrest these victories from the clenched jaws of the greedy and inhumane 1%. Thanks to the decline of labor unions and 40 years of harmful Republican policies that have undermined unions, we’re slowly but surely losing these rights. Why have unions declined since the late 1960’s? The [U.K.] Guardian‘s Richard Wolff ventures:
The New Deal‘s enemies – big business, Republicans, conservatives – had developed a coordinated strategy by the late 1940s. They would break up the coalition of organized labor, socialist and communist parties: the mass base that had forced through the 1930s New Deal. Then each coalition member could be individually destroyed. [...] Nor did labor unions or the left find or implement any successful strategy to counter the 50-year program aimed to destroy them.
Fortunately, unions are now re-energized and forging alliances with faith, community, and political groups to help workers organize, demand better work conditions, and demand a living wage. August’s ongoing fast food worker strikes for a $15 minimum wage are great examples of labor on the rebound. Labor Unions and their allies have also gotten more media-savvy, as they spread the word that companies can afford to pay more and that the ones who do — like Trader Joe‘s, Costco, and Publix — can still rake in big profits. They’re also getting the hang of the web and social media: The union-backed OUR Walmart uses Facebook and twitter for events and outreach, while using their website and YouTube channel to tell compelling stories about Walmart’s workers that strike home with the public. Meanwhile, the United Farm Workers have created a foundation to address the immigration issues faced by many of the workers they represent
A Gallup poll taken shortly before the 2013 Labor Day weekend shows that 54% of Americans hold favorable opinions about unions — not as good as the 75% high mark in 1956, but two percent better than last year’s poll. This is a hopeful sign for those of us who want to preserve labor unions’ key victories from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
(1) Labor Unions Gave Us Our Childhoods
Most of us idealize childhood and have fond memories of the good times we had as kids. But our concept of “childhood” is a very recent one, made possible by labor unions. Child labor was common for much of our 400-year history, partly because children worked as indentured servants and slaves, and partly because kids helped out with their families’ farms or businesses. During the industrial revolution of the 1800’s, as work moved out of the home and into factories and coal mines, so did men, women, and their children. According to the Child Labor Education Project, children were valued by factory owners even though they weren’t paid well. Kids were thought to be “manageable, cheaper, and less likely to strike.”
As more folks began working outside of the home, and clustering near facilities in towns and cities, they began demanding better wages and working conditions. In 1832, the New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics and Other Workingmen issued a statement condemning child labor:
“Children should not be allowed to labor in the factories from morning till night, without any time for healthy recreation and mental culture,” for it “endangers their . . . well-being and health.”
Plus, they compete against family breadwinners, and adult workers didn’t want that. This was followed in by child labor laws in MA requiring kids to attend school at least three months per year (1836) and mandating 10-hour maximum work days in (1842) with other states following suit. Under increasing pressure from reformers and unions like the Working Men’s Party and Samuel Gompers’ emerging American Federation of Labor (which put the AFL in AFL-CIO) the Democratic party adopted parts of the union platforms in 1892. In 1932, congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act which outlawed child labor and exploiting children by setting minimum ages for workers.
Alas, Republicans like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich keep attacking child labor laws at home. Meanwhile, companies like Walmart avoid these laws by shifting their manufacturing to countries that don’t have laws that protect workers.
Reasons to thank our unions
(2) TGIF! Labor Unions Gave Us Weekends And Leisure Time
We also owe Labor unions a heartfelt thanks every time we say “Thank God it’s Friday.” The idea of setting aside a day of rest is at least as old as God himself, who reportedly created the world in six days, rested on the seventh, and commanded via Moses that believers all do the same. But God didn’t give us weekends, 8-hour workdays, the 40-hour work week, and overtime pay. Unions did that.
Carpenters in Philadelphia, PA were the first to suggest shorter work weeks when they went on strike to demand 10-hour work days way back in 1791. The Welsh utopian socialist Robert Owen refined this concept across the pond and popularized it. In 1817, he coined the slogan “Eight hours labor, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest.” In 1836, labor movement publications began calling for 8-hour work days. In 1835, shipbuilders launched a series of strikes in Boston, MA, and were among the first workers to win a 40-hour work week in 1842.
By the 1870s, unions and labor groups across the nation were demanding 8-hour work days, organizing public strikes and rallies, andwinning victories despite intimidation and anti-union violence.
In 1914 Ford Motor Company sealed the deal – and famously ticked off its rivals — by cutting shifts to eight hours while doubling workers’ pay. But when auto makers saw Ford’s productivity increase as profits doubled from $30 million to $60 million in only two years, they quickly jumped on the band wagon. Of course, Henry Ford raised wages and cut work hours for hard-nosed business reasons, not humanitarian ones. Ford needed to reduce costly turnover created by injuries and boredom from the repetitive work to keep his cars moving out the door. Ford was also very strongly anti-union, and his company was among the last to recognize the United Auto Workers union. Still, his innovations helped standardize shorter work weeks and higher pay for all workers.
When the U.S. entered World War I in 1914, labor achieved more clout as demand for workers spiked. In 1916 the Adamson Act mandated 8-hour shifts and overtime pay for railroad workers, and the Supreme Court upheld the law a year later. Then, in the midst of the Great Depression and widespread unrest, congress passed the 1937 Fair Labor Standards Act. The FLSA was a cornerstone of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. It made the 40 hour work week standard, and required overtime pay for extra hours worked.
Reasons to thank our unions
(3) Labor Unions Gave Us The Minimum Wage … And They’re Fighting To Raise It
The minimum wage was a core win for the labor movement. Alas, minimum wage hasn’t even come close to keeping up with inflation over the past 40 years. The Institute for America’s Future announced that 40% of Americans make less than 1968’s minimum wage, as measured in today’s dollars. According to economist Dean Baker:
“If the minimum wage had risen in step with productivity growth [since 1968], it would be over $16.50 an hour today. That is higher than the hourly wages earned by 40 percent of men and half of women.”
This is bad news for America’s labor unions and workers, because public approval of unions tends to go down when wages are low and the job market is slow. And it doesn’t help that since fewer Americans are unionized than in the past, some of us resent the few workers that still benefit from unions. Union workers earn 10-30% more than non-union workers in similar jobs, have better benefits, and more job security. Luckily, labor unions and their allies are fighting hard to raise the minimum wage (some groups want $11 per hour, some want $15 per hour, and President Barack Obama advocates a meager $9 per hour). Things look hopeful, at least they would if we could lock those Republicans in Congress up in a dungeon somewhere. Studies from both conservative and liberal think tanks recommend raising the minimum wage, and Australia has had positive results from raising theirs.
But at least we have minimum wage to start from. This wasn’t always the case. According to MinimumWage.Org, this country had no minimum wage until 1938, when Congress passed the FSLA as part of FDR’s New Deal. Before that, employers could pay workers whatever they wanted, and they usually wanted to pay very little. Wikipedia states that between 1912 and 1920, 13 states plus the District of Columbia passed minimum wage laws, only to have them struck down by the Lochner era United States Supreme Court. Lochner’s crew makes today’s SCOTUS look almost liberal by comparison. Their rationale? Minimum wage laws we “unfair” to workers because it kept them from making low-ball offers. Because, as always, these conservatives are about “freedom” and “choice” … as in the freedom to choose amongst sh*tty options and low-wage jobs. In 1933, congress passed a law that mandated a .25 per hour minimum hourly wage, only to have it struck down by evil SCOTUS in 1935 (Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States).
The FLSA and other New Deal legislation was strongly influenced by FDR’s Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, a staunch ally of the labor movement. When asked about her goals, Perkins replied:
“A forty-hour workweek, a minimum wage, worker’s compensation, unemployment compensation, a federal law banning child labor, direct federal aid for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized public employment service and health insurance.”
The FDR administration’s leadership proved crucial to passing laws establishing workers’ rights, but only the clout of labor unions — earned through years ofstruggle — gave FDR’s new dealers the mandate they needed.
Reasons to thank our unions
(4) Labor Unions Gave Us Safe Working Environments
You might hate your job and your pointy-haired boss, but chances are, you don’t fear for your life when you go to work. Unregulated countries with weak unions and worker protections — like India and China — don’t have luxuries like breathable air, safe factories, and child-free work environments. No wonder Walmart, the Gap, and other U.S. companies want to do all their manufacturing overseas instead of dealing with ‘entitled’ American workers. So next time you work a full day and your building doesn’t collapse and kill you, please thank unions and labor activists from past generations for your safe, up-to-code working environment. And remember that the GOP and their wealthy masters would love to get rid of all those pesky regulations.
KCET has a wonderful, media-rich “History of Worker Safety” dating from Sumerian times to modern times:
- With the onset of the industrial revolution in the late 1700s, worker safety didn’t exist. American and European workers were routinely killed, disfigured, and disabled in factories, mines, and other work sites.
- In 1884 Prussian Chancellor Otto VonBismark launched the first worker’s comp. program. He couldn’t care less about working people, but he needed to get a jump on those pesky marxists.
- In 1906, the American novelist and news reporter Upton Sinclair sparked public outrage via his grisly accounts of conditions in Chicago’s meat packing plants in his novel, “The Jungle.”
- In 1911 Wisconsin passed the first workers’ compensation law in the U.S., followed by nine other states.
- Under pressure from unions and labor groups, Congress passed the Walsh-Healey act to set safety standards for companies working with the U.S. Government.
- In 1970 the GOP President Richard M. Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA).
- In 1990 the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) passed, requiring employers to install safe accommodations for workers and others who are differently-abled.
We can also thank the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 for enacting workers’ and unions’ right to collective bargaining, and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — where union and non-union workers alike can take disputes over wages and working conditions at their jobs.
Reasons to thank our unions
(5) Labor Unions Gave Us Health Insurance, Paid Vacations, And Fringe Benefits
Pressure from Labor Unions also set the standards for work-related benefits like health insurance, paid vacations, pensions, sick time, family leave, and other benefits most American workers once received from their jobs. That, and a full employment economy established by the American war effort during World War II (1939-1945). With the U.S. government footing the bill for manufacturing massive amounts of wartime weapons and supplies, companies were eager to hire just about everyone and produce as much as possible, as quickly as possible, with little regard for efficiency. This lifted many U.S. families out of poverty and created a new middle class, hough — due to wartime rationing — most Americans still lived modestly. With demand for workers so high, unions gained more power, and had the power to negotiate more benefits for their employees.
The corporate paternalism of the mid-century also had a lot to do with staving off calls for universal health care and other measures similar to socialized programs taking root in Europe. Physicians for a National Health Plan explains the uneasy compromise forged between unions, corporate interests, FDR and (later) President Harry Truman. In 1943, the Wagner-Murray-Dingell Bill called for compulsory national health insurance financed by a payroll tax. Meanwhile, those opposed responded with a red-baiting campaign against one of the bill’s key supporters., who was a member of the International Labor Organization. The bill kept being re-introduced in congress for 14 years, but it never passed.
As reported by the National Bureau of Economic Research:
When the (WWII) War Labor Board declared that fringe benefits, such as sick leave and health insurance, did not count as wages for the purpose of wage controls, employers responded with significantly increased offers of fringe benefits, especially health care coverage, to attract workers.[
Offering generous fringe benefits to workers helped conservatives to avert “creeping socialism” Alas, now that corporate America has found ways to dispense of its workers, they’re no longer sticking to their side of the bargain. The United States’ lack of European-style publicly-funded social safety nets and generous benefits in terms of healthcare, paid family leave, paid vacations, retirement security, subsidized higher education, etc. only worked as long as private companies and government agencies provided secure employment. The reason so many Americans — and our economy — is in trouble now is because companies are no longer willing to provide secure, full-time employment for a living wage.
But at least labor unions established a precedent, along with the commonly-held belief that workers have a right to these things, and remain in a position to demand that workers receive these benefits and a living wage — whether it’s through the private sector or the public sector.
Reasons to thank our unions
Collective bargaining is the key
So how did labor unions accomplish all these good things for American workers? Through collective bargaining. Thanks to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, workers or their representatives have a legal right to negotiate with their bosses for better pay and working conditions without the risk of getting fired. Unfortunately, states have a lot of leeway, and Republican politicians — like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walter — have done a lot to undermine workers’ rights to organize and make demands. This is a shame, because the right to collective bargaining took over 100 years to win, through generations’ worth of strikes, wide-spread demonstrations of public support, and tireless organization efforts by union organizers and their supporters. Early strikes were prolonged and often ended in failure (like The Patterson Silk Strike of 1913) and bloodshed (The Pullman Strike of 1894), but mobilized thousands of workers and evoked increasing sympathy from the public. By 1933, unions had enough clout and public support to help elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) as president of the U.S., and to pass the series of economic programs known as the “New Deal,” which created the American middle class.
Why we should support unions even if we aren’t in one — Some basic union facts
If your company’s profits are going through the roof, while your salary doesn’t even keep up with inflation, you can partly blame that on the decline of unions. According to the Service Employees International Union:
Prior to the 1980s, productivity gains and workers’ wages moved in tandem. But from 1980 to 2008, nationwide worker productivity grew by 75 percent, while workers’ inflation-adjusted average wages increased by only 22.6 percent.
And why have unions declined? You can blame that on the GOP and anti-union companies like Walmart. According to the Economic Policy Institute‘s report, “Unions, inequality, and faltering middle class wages”:
This erosion of bargaining power is partially related to a harsher economic context for unions because of trade pressures, the shift to services, and ongoing technological change. However, analysts have also pointed to other factors, such as employers’ militant stance against unions and changes in the application and administration of labor law, that have helped to weaken unions and their ability to raise wages.
Here are some basic facts on how unions help all workers:
- Union workers earn more than non-union workers — to the tune of $4.35 an hour or $10,300 per year on average. [SOURCE: SEIU]
- Union workers are more likely to have health insurance — 79% of them are covered, vs. 50% of non-union workers. Their employers also pay a higher share of coverage costs. [SOURCE: Bureau of Labor and Statistics]
- Employers offer better benefits of all kinds to union workers, including retirement, paid vacation and sick days, and holidays. [SOURCE: NWLaborProgress.Com]
- When unions decline, so do workers’ earnings. Since 1980, workers are 75% more productive but their wages have only risen by 22.6%. [SOURCE: Service Employees International Union] Union participation has also declined since then.
- Increased labor union membership helps all workers, because unions help “set norms or labor standards that raise the wages of comparable nonunion workers.” [SOURCE: Economic Policy Institute]
Reasons to thank our unions
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