2004-12-17 / Columnists

The Progressive

Labor Pains
By John Paul Culotta


November’s reelection of Bush/Cheney was a debacle not only for the Democratic Party but also for the labor movement. Many people remember when thirty five percent of American workers belonged to labor unions. At this time, only thirteen percent of workers belong to unions. Labor unions were considered essential for democratic government. During the occupation of Japan, the United States insisted that the new Japanese constitution allow labor unions to be formed. Universal education, social security, overpayment payment after working a 40-hour week, Medicare, Health and Safety regulations, and unemployment insurance compensation were goals of a united American labor movement.

The American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Labor Organizations (AFL-CIO) united as a single entity in the early 1950’s. Newspaper and radio/TV media at that time asked labor union officials to comment on direction the nation should take. Labor unions mattered.

The labor union movement no longer has that clout and all of us are the poorer because of it. Non-union worker benefit when labor unions are strong. Abuses in the workplace can be addressed through strong labor unions. Legislation regarding health and safety in the workplace can be made more effective and have an impact on all workers when labor unions are strong. Employers are more willing to pay living wages when labor unions are strong. Labor unions have been essential catalysts for positive change all over the world.

A November 19, 2004 article in the New York Times was about the increasing trend of employers not paying workers for time spent working. Workers are often required to go ‘off the clock’ while working. There have been reports of increased abuses of child labor and industrial accidents. A strong labor union movement could address these issues. The fall of communism was hastened by the Solidarity movement in Poland.

Unions are not a panacea and some unions are corrupt. Despite any problems, labor unions contributed to a more equitable economic society and development.

Workplace issues (overtime. working conditions in call centers and discount stores for example Wal-Mart or Home Depot, safety issues, outsourcing, living wages, pension protection, and organizing) need to become the focus of our national political life. Our future as a democracy depends on all of us being able to participate in the blessings our labor and divine providence gives this nation.

As a movement, the AFL-CIO was opposed to Bush/Cheney but the result of the election has had a positive effect within the group. A debate is now in progress as to how to mitigate the results of the election and make the organization more effective. The challenges facing the AFL-CIO are enormous and the response by the organization and all of political entities that will input into the debate will have an effect for all Americans.

Recently, Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), proposed consolidation and merging of about 60 unions into 20 unions to develop stronger unions that meet the economic and social clout that major corporations have. Stern has also called for recruitment of members to labor unions. Recently the only growth in membership has been in state and local government workers and health care facilities.

 Let the debate begin!

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