Celebrating Unions on Labor Day
James Hall, From the Left
As we celebrate Labor Day, the traditional end of the summer, we acknowledge the important role that labor unions have played
in this country. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 regularized the conduct of near total war that occurred previously
between organized labor and American corporations. Along the way labor unions raised the standard of living for every American
worker, member or not, and created benefits, pensions, health and safety standards that protect all workers today whether
they be union or nonunion.
At the turn of the Twentieth Century child labor was the norm in American society. Many
Americans lived in 'company towns' where the company owned all and dictated the price of food, clothing, and shelter. Workers
continually found themselves in debt to the company store. There was no overtime pay, little healthcare, and no benefits.
The life of the average worker was nasty, brutish, and short--50 years being considered a long life. No retirement and no
pensions, either--the American worker labored until he died. Health and safety laws were nonexistent: each fire or accident
at a mill, factory, or mine typically left scores of dead workers and destitute families. Those disabled by their work depended
on someone's charity to survive or quietly died.
The American labor union movement put an end to these conditions.
Unions organized to stop child labor and end the company towns. They fought for a succession of pay raises that brought most
union jobs out of lower and into the middle class, complete with individual home ownership, savings for college, and benefits
like medical care, disability insurance, and retirement pensions. They introduced the American Dream to successive generations
of American workers who might otherwise have been attracted to the Communist Manifesto, had they remained as poor and underrepresented
as their Russian and Chinese peers.
In the 1950s, American labor unions represented 35% of all workers. But the unions'
influence went much farther than that. They pushed for state and federal laws to protect all workers, union and nonunion,
established the 40-hour workweek as the norm with paid overtime afterwards. Competition from the unionized sector of the economy
forced nonunion companies and industries to offer similar benefits.
Today the unions and union-sponsored laws continue
to protect workers from predatory corporations whose attitudes are little changed from a century ago. Those who work for companies
and corporations large and small soon realize that the company has less regard for them than does a farmer for his mule. The
mule, at least, is property, and worth something if sold. "Good business," which these days means maximizing profits
for top management and the stockholders, operates by getting as much work out of each worker for as little money as possible,
and then disposing of "labor costs" (read 'human worker' here) as quickly as possible. Corporations care not a whit
for the people they employ, the community they employ them in, or the nation in which they are employed. Profit is their first
and only priority and their only loyalty.
Labor unions, on the other hand, draw strength from their members, their
community, and their nation. It's no mistake that while corporations are increasingly multinational, labor unions remain organized
along national lines. While corporations will leave a town, state, or even the country at the drop of a hat, unions fight
to retain America's manufacturing base in America.
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 made it easier
for the American worker to organize, increasing union members from 4 million to 11 million in five years. But after World
War II, conservative Republicans pushed through the Taft-Hartley Act, which made the NLRA more of a confrontational process.
Today Americans workers who try to organize their workplaces are subject to harrassments both legal and illegal. Union membership
has fallen off to 16%, with thousands of manufacturing jobs going overseas or south to Mexico where unions are weak or nonexistent.
In 1994, the Dunlop Commission on the Future of Labor Management Relations surveyed American workers and found that
a third of them would immediately join a union without any organization effort if offered the chance to do so without reprisal.
This mirrors the growth of unions in public and private sectors where unions are allowed to organize without opposition from
management. Repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act would allow more workers to join and form unions and lower the confrontational
climate that exists between management and labor.
Why support unions? Union members typically earn 32% more than
workers in unrepresented businesses. That figure is even higher for women (39%) and minorities (45%-54%) who are frequently
stuck in low-paying or minimum wage jobs. In job training and apprenticeship programs, unions are second only to the military
in efforts taken for job training and career development. Unions and union members support their local communities and their
On this Labor Day we ought to be grateful for the things that unions have brought us--retirement pensions,
health insurance, health and safety rules, and an end to child labor--and support the right of workers to join a union without
fear of being fired or being forced to attend compulsory antiunion meetings. The right to join a union ought to be part of
our freedom of association guaranteed by the US Constitution. Unions are and remain indispensable institutions that offer
workers a chance to resist corporate abuse and give them a chance to play a role in the national life.
By parroting every corporate argument against unions, including the phrase "right to work" coined by a corporate
PR firm in Dallas, Texas, Sartre clearly shows that he's the dupe of the multinationals. Wake up conservatives, the international
corporations aren't your friends or ideological companions! Union members are your friends, your relatives, your fellow citizens
who love this country much better than any corporate CEO with overseas accounts and properties. No union grants any individual
his natural dignity--but it does give him the opportunity to express that dignity it in the workplace without fear of unjust
Imagine the outrage we would all feel if our employer dictated to us the organizations that we could
or could not join--"yes" to Shriners, "no" to Masons; "yes" to Handgun Control; "no"
to the NRA; "yes" to the local Baptist church, "no" to the Presbyterians. We would find this situation
intolerable, a violation of our freedom to associate with others that's guaranteed by our Constitution.
is precisely the situation that workers in antiunion workplaces find themselves. They are forced to attend antiunion meetings,
watch antiunion videos, and are threatened with the loss of their jobs if they exercise their right to join a union--or even
express an opinion on the subject. Under the Taft-Hartley Act, corporations are permitted to wage campaigns against unions
so long as they are carried on with "no threat of reprisal or promise of benefit." The reality is that this law
is ignored by most corporations and the National Labor Relations Board, which administers it, moves slowly and ponderously
to enforce it.
Abandoning Taft-Hartley, and returning America to the original National Labor Relations Act of 1935
would go a long way to restoring the American worker's freedom to associate and make it possible to collectively bargain once
again without the need for the warfare that currently exists between workers trying to organize a union and their employers
working hard to prevent it. In the perfect world that Sartre and fellow apologists describe (a mythic world that has never
existed and likely will never exist), collective bargaining might not be necessary. But in the world inhabited by corporations
and venal bosses, collective action by union members is essential.
James Hall, From the Left