Harley Shaiken: U.S. labor's still a work in progress
By Harley Shaiken - Special To The Bee Published Sunday, September 2, 2007
Day weekend is a good time to reflect for a moment on the role of unions in
does this have to do with me, you might say? After all, union membership in the
private sector has slid to 7 percent, down from a peak of 35 percent in the
mid-1950s, and unions now account for a little over 12 percent of the overall
or not you're a union member, unions are more important than ever for working
Americans in a hypercompetitive domestic economy and no-holds-barred global
marketplace. A popular bumper sticker used to say, "Unions -- the folks
who brought you the weekend," but unions are also "the folks who
brought you the middle class." And, as union numbers slide, the middle
class begins to skid.
unions were strong, they forged a link between rising productivity and rising
wages propelling millions of working Americans into the middle class. The
purchasing power of these middle-class families bought cars and houses, sent
kids to college, and this demand fueled the economy to new heights.
major leader in the 1950s assured us "only a handful of reactionaries
harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions and depriving working men and women
of the right to join the union of their choice." Was this Walter P.
Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers, defending his turf? No, it
was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the president of the United
States, telling us
that unions are a vital part of a democratic society.
unions gained at the bargaining table benefited all working Americans then as
well as now. When a union such as the UAW won paid health care or paid pensions
for its members, it set a standard that non-union companies followed often to
fact, some studies estimate that the total value of what non-union workers
gained about equaled what union members received in their paychecks directly.
politics, unions have been central to passing and protecting almost all of the
landmark social legislation of the past 70 years, from Social Security to the
Occupational Safety and Health Act. In some cases, such as the minimum wage,
non-union workers are the primary beneficiaries.
unions remain a powerful force politically, as their numbers weaken their
overall influence wanes. The result contributes to a far more unequal society
in which those at the top are flooded with riches while those at the bottom
wind up in an economic dust bowl. Many in between become increasingly insecure.
benefits of economic growth during the current economic recovery, which began
in late 2001, have failed to trickle down to many Californians," a recent
report by the California Budget Project concluded. In fact, these benefits
appeared to have flowed upward given the absence of strong unions in many
sectors. Profits more than tripled in the state between 2000 and 2005, while
wages inched up by 16 percent.
personal pain of getting knocked out of the middle class was brought home in a
widely reported moment in an AFL-CIO debate among Democratic presidential
candidates in Chicago last
month. Steve Skvara, a 34-year disabled veteran of now-bankrupt LTV Steel,
posed a question to former Sen. John Edwards of North
Carolina on health care, choking up when
he said, "I sit at the kitchen table across from the woman who devoted 36
years of her life to my family and I can't afford to pay for (her) health
passionately responded that "we ought to have universal health care in
this country," a fight that will require an engaged labor movement to
reported was a visit Skvara paid to the CNBC program "Hardball with Chris
Matthews" the following night. When asked about his own health insurance,
he responded that "Medicare for me is excellent," although he was
worried about attempts to privatize it.
strong labor movement assured the passage of this historic legislation in the
first place -- we sometimes forget how controversial the bill was -- and labor
has been vigilant in protecting it ever since.
the spirit of the labor movement has been on a picket line in front of the
Saigon Grill in Manhattan. By
virtually every economic measure the bicycle deliverymen are at the bottom of
the economic totem pole, the most downtrodden workers and the most vulnerable.
They claim abuses such as salaries that are half the minimum wage to $20 fines
for late deliveries in the sweltering heat of the summer or bone-chilling cold
of the winter. For protesting those conditions, they have all been fired.
of giving up, they are seeking to organize to assert their rights and to retain
their dignity. All the restaurant's now-fired deliverymen -- 30 immigrants from
and without documents joined by hundreds of workers from other eateries across
the city -- have been walking a picket line.
turning to a union they have company. The Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., tells
us that 2 million immigrants have joined unions, accounting for 1 out of every
8 union members, up from 1.6 million in 1996. As a result, unions are
redefining solidarity, and immigrants are revitalizing the labor movement.
Labor Day weekend remains a time to enjoy the beach or the backyard. It is also
worth a moment reflecting on the folks who brought us Labor Day in the first
place as a way to celebrate the contributions of working men and women as the
19th century drew to a close. Unions are a far-from-perfect institution, but
like democracy itself they are far better than the alternative. And, given the
challenges of today, if we didn't have a labor movement, we'd have to invent one.