Note to the new prez: a stimulus package won’t do you a damn bit of good unless you can create a surge of purchasing power that will raise spending to lofty heights.
Note to the new working class: demography and immigration have now made you the vanguard; Hispanics, Blacks, Asians, Pakistanis, Middle Easterners, Africans, and others who have migrated to the United States to partake in the American dream. The Jews, the Irish, the Italians, the Germans, the Scandinavians, the Slavs and other middle Europeans have moved up the ladder to fresher fields.
The former union leaders are gone, too; the Gene Debs’, the David Dubinskys, the Sidney Hillmans, The Walter Reuthers , the John L Lewis’, all dim memories.
Today, you are fighting new battles for a fundamental idea—collective bargaining.
The Wagner Act, otherwise known as The National Labor Relations Act was passed during the Roosevelt Administration in 1935. It established a Federal law to protect the rights of workers in the private sector to organize unions, to engage in, and encourage, collective bargaining for labor, permit strikes and other forms of concerted activity in support of their demands. The corporate oligarchy, or “economic royalists” as Franklin Roosevelt called them, fought it, tooth and nail, all the way.
The Act worked well for about 50 of its 75 years. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was one of the first federations of labor unions in the United States, founded by Samuel Gompers in Columbus, Ohio in 1886. The AFL consisted (and still consists) mainly of craft unions.
John L. Lewis, former head of the United Mine Workers, saw industrialism in the US expanding in the first half of the 20th Century. He saw the need for organizing workers in mass production industries. He formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), encompassing steel workers, mine, mill and smelter workers, auto workers, electrical and communication workers, and so many others all open to African Americans and other minorities.
Both federations grew rapidly during the Great Depression. By 1955, they merged, forming the new entity known as the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), as we know it today.
A strong labor movement was welded in the United States that lasted through the 1970s that raised the standard of living for workers. Unions fought for higher wages, better working conditions, health benefits and pension plans. It formed the basis of a broader middle class, the pride of America.
The attack on labor by corporate power was, nevertheless, unrelenting. The “economic royalists”, as Roosevelt called the corporate oligarchy at the time, fought the trade union movement from the very beginning. The profit system necessitated squeezing every bit of labor’s surplus value out of the worker.
Trade unions were forced to fight for survival with bargaining, boycotts and blood. Most of the time, union violence was provoked by industry, exemplified in 1937 when Chicago police killed ten striking steel workers in a bloody, historic battle—the Memorial Day massacre.
Eventually, of course, the employers succeeded.
You could say that the current problem began with the Reagan “revolution”. He struck the first blow by breaking the air-controllers’ (PATCO) strike. It proceeded from there. Corporate power went on a crusade to crush the organized labor movement in this country.
Under capitalism, the assault on labor has always been overwhelming, continuous, inhuman and destructive from the beginning of the industrial revolution to this very day. No wonder unions are dysfunctional and chaotic. So are most of their leaders. If they’re not coerced, co-opted or corrupted, they’re framed, jailed or neutralized in some way. At this stage in our history, corporate America has done a pretty smashing job.
The battle today roils around the attempt in Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. It could give labor organization a fresh boost.
The Act, if passed, would establish a level playing field for workers and union organizers in their struggle against employers and contractors who exploit and intimidate their employees.
Under an Employee Free Choice Act, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) would recognize the union’s role as the official bargaining agent if a majority of employees authorized representation via a card check (signing a card stipulating their preference), without requiring a secret ballot election.
The bill was passed by the House in 2007 and had majority support in the Senate, but was never voted on due to a Republican-led filibuster.
In the new Obama Administration, passing the EFCA will become a number one priority for organized labor. Barack Obama has expressed his support of the measure.
It would get his stimulus package off to a flying start to see a little more of workers’ surplus value lifting purchasing power rather than flowing up into the pockets of the economic royalists.
STEPHEN FLEISCHMAN, writer-producer-director of documentaries, spent thirty years in Network News at CBS and ABC. His memoir, “A Red in the House” is now in print. See www.amahchewahwah.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.