Monday was Labor Day, which probably suggests that if I was going to write a Labor Day piece, Monday would have been a good day for it. But procrastination remains my favorite character flaw, right up there with laziness. (I was going to start an apathy club, but it seemed like too much trouble. I was going to start a procrastinators’ club, and will, first thing tomorrow!)
Besides, Labor Day is a wonderful holiday, celebrating unions. “Comrades, come rally, and the last night let us face!” Sing along together, brothers and sisters! Remember Joe Hill! My grandfather was a union man, and thanks to the United Steelworkers, a Norwegian immigrant with almost no formal education, a hard working laborer in a stell mill, could put two kids through college, buy a home, and build a wonderful life for himself and his family in America.
And yet, the labor union remains an institution that is quickly disappearing from American life, despite the fact that it’s probably needed today more than ever. There a 151 million Americans with full-time jobs today, and only 16 million belong to unions, which is about 9% of the population. And the income gap grows ever wider. The super-rich have never been richer and real wages for the lower and middle class continue to fall. There’s talk, of course, of raising the minimum wage. National legislation doing that has no chance at all, as long as Republicans control the House of Representatives.
In a sense, our country is in a new Gilded Age, reliving the later years of the nineteenth century, that period when the Rockefellers and Carnegies and J.P. Morgans of the country became rich beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings, while factory workers killed themselves working horrendous hours for terrible pay and no benefits. Working people had no voice, no advocates, no chance of rising. Sixteen tons was not hyperbole; coal miners did owe their souls to the company soul. No more.
It’s the one genuinely inspiring story in all of American history. If you want to tell stories of heroism and sacrifice, of ordinary people making a difference, tell the story of the American labor movement. Tell the story of Cesar Chavez and John Lewis, of Eugene V. Debs and Samuel Gompers, of the Pullman strike and the coal strikes, of the UAW and the IWW. Why hasn’t HBO or Showtime or A&E or AMC done a multi-part miniseries about the American labor movement? It would be spectacular.
Tell the story. Because in another sense, we’re not living in another Gilded Age, precisely because of unions. Minimum wage laws, child labor laws, required overtime pay for overtime work, safety regulations for workers, restrictions on those ‘company stores,’ a whole web of regulations we rely on today have made life for the working poor at least somewhat livable. And we owe it all to unions. We owe it all to the blood and guts and sacrifices and toughness of generations of organizers and strikers. My grandfather told me once that I could do anything I wanted to with my life, I could pursue any career at all, and he would love me and support me. But if I ever turned scab, that was it. That would end our relationship. That was the one unforgivable sin; to cross a union line.
So why isn’t Walmart organized? Or McDonalds? Or UPS? Or Amazon? Why isn’t there a national union of service industry workers, a union for call center employees and fast food workers and department store clerks? If you get a job at Walmart, warnings against unionizing is part of your employee orientation training. Why isn’t the CEO of Walmart in prison for his persistent violations of labor law in that regard?
And I know this is an unpopular opinion. I know that conservatives hate unions, and see them as inherently destructive, as economically unfeasible, as greedy and corrupt. And there have been corrupt union leaders in our history; that’s certainly true. Power corrupts, and union bosses aren’t all saintly, which is why Jimmy Hoffa got poured into the foundations of the Meadowlands football stadium.
My brothers are businessmen, and this is an area where we disagree. So let me make my case.
If you run a business, to whom are you responsible? You run a business, you create products, you sell them, who are your constituents? Well, the Business School model would say that you are, first and foremost, responsible to your shareholders. The people who have invested money in your company, the people who have loaned the money with which you built it, they’re probably the first people to whom you are responsible. And for publicly owned companies, there’s a board of directors safeguarding the interests of those shareholders. So there you go; you’re responsible to shareholders, and a board looking after their interests.
You also have a responsibility towards your customers, obviously. Presumably you provide either a product or a service or both, and you have a responsibility to make it a good product or a valued service. And all sorts of consumer advocacy groups make sure you do provide a good product, and not a shoddy one. There’s the Better Business Bureau, there’s Consumer Reports, there are many others. And frankly, if you rip people off, you won’t stay in business for very long. There are also government entities; if you’re in pharmaceuticals, you answer to the FDA, for example.
You’re also responsible to the community, I suppose. You want to be a good citizen, you want to make the town or city where you live a better place. It’s good for the company image. And if you contribute to the local symphony orchestra, you can even get a tax break.
But you also have a responsibility to your workers, to your employers. And they have no one looking out for their interests. They have no advocate, no spokesperson. There are, of course, laws regarding employees. You may be required to provide health benefits, you can’t endanger their health, you can’t overwork them. And basic labor economics suggests that skilled workers will need to be paid an industry standard if you want to retain them. But if a layoff will help your stock price, you lay off the workers, and they have no effective recourse.
That’s where unions fit. Workers need an advocate; employees need collective bargaining. Is it possible that unionizing will cut into the corporate bottom line? Absolutely, and given the current level of corporate profits, that’s a very good thing, too.
So on this Labor Day, let’s do two things. First, let’s show some gratitude for our forefathers, for the courage and determination of those generations before us who fought for working people, and achieved so much. And second, let’s fight for unionization today. Let’s organize again, fight the bosses again, raise wages and awareness. Like Norma Rae, let’s hold up our hand painting sign, and proclaim our allegiance: Union! Union! Union!