Nel's New Day

September 3, 2012

Labor Day, NOT a Time to Celebrate Management

On this Labor Day, my partner and I sat outside the local Fred Meyers’ grocery store and discussed the importance of labor unions. I told her that they are much like bees, that people might complain about getting stung but without unions that society would disappear. In a more optimistic fashion, she maintained that the super-rich would pay the workers just enough to keep buying what the corporations sell so that the wealthy could keep making more and more money. My response was that they weren’t that smart, that they were perfectly willing to kill the golden goose to get all the eggs immediately rather than receiving them piecemeal.

The entire battle regarding labor and labor unions is about power. Workers think that they should have certain rights, and conservatives want the control with the company or the people who pay taxes. If conservatives had their way, they would do away with the minimum wage, child labor laws, the 40-hour week and any overtime, workers’ compensation, workplace safety, pensions, health care insurance, leave for illness, vacations and holidays, equal treatment for the workers, any kind of anti-discrimination laws, etc. Conservatives are intent on accomplishing this race to the bottom.

A tweet from Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) today shows how little regard conservatives have for labor: “Today we celebrate those who have taken a risk, worked hard, built their own business, and earned their own success.” No mention of people who build roads, nurse the sick, put out our fires, keep us safe, pick our food—those people who worked at Fred Meyers today so that I could buy groceries.

When a group of laborers celebrated the first Labor Day 130 years ago, working conditions were deplorable, but people could still to West to get land and work for themselves. In 1887, Oregon (do you detect my pride?!) was the first of 30 states to declare the day a holiday before the federal government took the same action 12 years later. Tragedies in the early 20th century led to the anger that resulted in the growth of labor unions. From that action and the benefits of President Roosevelt’s New Deal came a strong middle class that had a much more comfortable life in the mid-20th century than people have now.

The percentage of workers in unions peaked in 1954 at almost 35 percent of the workers. Since that time, union membership has grown in the public sector while drastically shrinking in the private sector, now down to 7 percent, the same as in 1932. Private sector workers resent public sector employees having more benefits, including pensions and health insurance; private sector workers prefer to tear down the benefits of public sector workers rather than attempting to build up their own situation. More race to the bottom!

One complaint from conservatives is that unions can require its members to campaign for a political candidate. The truth is that corporations have the same right. That’s why the miners were required to watch a speech by Mitt Romney recently and be photographed while having their wages docked because they weren’t working while attending the event. Rob Moore of Murray Energy Company, which owns the mine, admitted that the workers weren’t paid for the day. He said, “Our managers communicated to our workforce that the attendance at the Romney event was mandatory, but no one was forced to attend.” Even unions don’t do that.

In states without right-to-work laws, the union must represent all workers if the majority of workers in a private company vote for a union because all workers must then pay dues. In right-to-work states, however, the majority does not rule. Statistics about “right-to-work” states show that the workers are worse off than in other states. Workers have lower compensation in RTW states than in other states. Average wages for nonfarm workers in RTW states are $57, 732, compared to $65,567 in other states. Even when compensation is adjusted for cost of living, those in RTW states lose out by 3.5 percent. This figure doesn’t take into consideration the salaries of federal employees whose wages would be the same in all the states, meaning that salaries are probably even lower in these states.

RTW states lose companies that provide better wages. In one right-to-work state, Oklahoma, the number of new companies coming into the state has shrunk by one-third since it passed its RTW law, and the state has lost one-third of its manufacturing jobs during the same time period.  Idaho has the same problem as Oklahoma. Before it became a right-to-work state in 1985, Idaho was ranked 35th for per capita income. Now it is 49th because the only industries coming into the state are those seeking cheap, unskilled labor.

lRTW states also suffer from more problems than lost wages. The occupational-fatality rate in the construction industry—one of the most hazardous in terms of workplace deaths—is 34 percent higher in right-to-work states than in states without such laws. Workers in RTW states also have less health care and pensions.

Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy signed the Executive Order that brought bargaining rights to most federal workers for the first time. Public sector union rights had no controversy for 20 years; even Ronald Reagan presided over the extension of collective bargaining rights to California state and local workers in 1968 when he was governor. He also caused the shift against public sector unions when he broke the air traffic controllers strike in 1981 although he kept their right to bargain. Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) was the one who stripped government workers of their bargaining rights.

Despite claims that public sector unions are at fault in today’s budget deficits, conservatives, as usual, lie about this. North Carolina with a 10-percent budget shortfall for next year has no collective bargaining. Budget problems in New York, a highly unionized state, are only one-third those of North Carolina. Conservatives’ worship of Ronald Reagan ignore the fact that his position on workers’ rights is much closer to that of Kennedy than to today’s rabid hatred of public “servants.”

Tomorrow the Democratic convention starts in Charlotte (NC). Today the North Carolina State AFL-CIO helped kick off the event with its “hug-a-thug” booth, referring to the Republican use of the term “union thugs.” MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer for the organization, said, “Union members take care of you in the hospital, deliver your packages and sit next you in church. We are just average folks.” Union members run the Guide Dogs of America program and rebuilt the World Trade Center.

As Nathaniel Downes said:

 “No man is an island. We all live and work in a community. We do better when the community is thriving. Our nation did its best when we had a strong concept of community, of society. Those who made the most paid to support that system, paying ahead for the next generation. Those who fell behind were caught in the safety net and given a ladder with which to climb back out of the pit of poverty. The concept of greed and selfishness has sapped society of its strength. The pursuit of wealth at all costs has created a catastrophe in the making, for once enough people fall into poverty the consumer market will seize up. Once that happens, no money in the world will help those at the top as they find their empires crumbling beneath them.”

Although the road to prosperity is now paved with poverty of the vast majority, the wealthy don’t understand what will happen without a strong middle class. It’s a cycle: the worse off that people get, the more that their anger and resentment builds, and they use unions for scapegoats. As these angry and resentful people attack and weaken unions, the economy worsens. Then the angry and resentful are far worse off and trying harder to destroy their scapegoats, which only worsens the economy. In essence they destroy themselves.

Respected Republican presidents of the past understood the importance of labor, not management:

“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”–Abraham Lincoln

“Where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost.”–Ronald Reagan

“It is essential that there should be organization of labor. This is an era of organization. Capital organizes and therefore labor must organize.”–Theodore Roosevelt

“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

“If any man tells you he loves America, yet hates labor, he is a liar. If any man tells you he trusts America, yet fears labor, he is a fool.”–Abraham Lincoln

The Republican goal of destroying the public sector unions comes from the GOP desire to destroy the middle class, because this is the group that organizes opposition to conservative ideology that only wants to provide more wealth for the rich. After the public sector unions are gone, the GOP will go after the few private sector unions that remain. Organization means resistance to the GOP objective of taking freedom from everyone in the country except the super-rich.

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