2005-08-25 / Columnists

The Progressive

Social Justice
By John Paul Culotta

As Labor Day approaches, it is imperative that we reflect on the state of the American labor union movement. For more than two decades we have read about the dying or dead labor movement. Only 13 or 15 percent of American workers are union members. Has this been an impediment or a stimulus to progress?

Many Republicans and alas some Democrats may argue American workers do not need labor unions. Last time I wrote about the Wal-Mart Corporation. It is without question the model for most American corporations at this time.

A free market system generates wealth but without all segments of our civil society sharing in its bounty, chaos and civil disorder will be the norm for most of us. The use of child labor, unauthorized immigrants, starvation wages, inadequate healthcare and a miserable costly healthcare delivery system, closed opportunities for the disadvantaged to higher education, the lack of extra overtime payment protection is a social problem that affects all of us. We are addressing the evil that international terrorists present our nation. We can argue the policy but we recognize the danger the foreign terrorists present. We need to address the evil of corporate greed that can also destroy our economic and social order.

Labor Day in this nation is, as we all know the first Monday in September. It is a replacement for May 1st, which is the day most other nations recognize workers and the union movement. In this country the day is becoming just an indicator that summer is over and a return to school and normal business is approaching. This is unfortunate. We do not acknowledge that May 1st is recognition of a massacre that occurred in Chicago, Illinois more than a century ago when workers were demanding a 40-hour workweek. Labor unions were in the vanguard of social justice against the unbridled unrestrained capitalism that would exist if there were no social balance force to combat the evils of the markets that only judge success with profits that are huge and dismiss social despair.

Slum housing is profitable for some and causes grief and health problems for many. A boom in housing values causes assessed valuations to increase. Many seniors therefore cannot pay the increased taxes. Young people cannot afford the increased prices. Easy credit can ease some of the pain. Banks are now offering interest only mortgages, adjusted rate mortgages, and some are buying homes without down payments. Credit cards are being marketed in a manner that is now causing security problems for the public. Easy credit can be an excellent toll to generate prosperity but it also masks the serous problem that exists in this country and that is the lack of an increase in real wages for the American worker in three decades. Real wealth is not generated in a booming stock market and speculation in an over heated real estate market. Wealth is generated by labor. All labor is noble and must be appreciated. Without labor, capital cannot grow. Labor and capital is essential for a prosperous free market system.

In the past, labor unions were the vehicle to balance corporate economic, social and political power in our civic society. Free universal education, a 40-hour week, overtime compensation, health and safety regulations, Social Security, and Medicare are part of our civic life because of union pressure. Of course some unions have been corrupt. This is part of our human nature and condition.

Many corporations have engaged in illegal and corrupt activities. For example, Tyco and Enron. Some unions were restrictive to various ethnic groups. Many were racist. It cannot be forgotten that some unions especially the United Automobile Workers (UAW) were helpful in the struggle for civil rights for African Americans. Martin Luther King spoke at a union meeting the night he was murdered.

It is essential that the majority of Americans have a voice in society and at their workplace. Democracy demands this. Our nation should contemplate legislation that allows workers to vote for union representation.

If we seek a more just society, unions are essential to combat the evils of greed. Our nation can be a truly prosperous country without stock market and real estate speculation. Let us return to the belief system; which rewards work and elevates our neighbor and does not profit from their misery.

Every Christmas, Frank Capra’s film “It’s a Wonderful Life” is shown on television. Mr. Capra was born in Sicily but this naturalized American knew what America stood for – a country that allowed all who were willing to work a decent living.

Labor unions can help that process. I wondered if it would more appropriate for us to view Capra’s film on Labor Day.

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