2006-03-24 / Columnists

The Progressive

Unions, Part II (Cont. From March 10)
By John Paul Culotta


Why are unions a part of the solution? Our economy needs successful and profitable businesses to flourish. Without the profit motive, our economy will suffer and as a result community cohesion will also decrease. We need corporation to recognize their responsibility to their nation and to the world. Unions also must be part of the political, social, and economic mix. Unions can be counterweights to the massive power those employers hold over their employees. It gives workers some input into their daily life. Unions can be an empowering force. Democracy can only be strengthened when citizens of a nation have control over their lives in a meaningful and continuous nature. All Americans will benefit from strong labor union organizations. Ninety-five years ago, on March 25,1911, New York City witnessed one of its greatest tragedies- the Triangle Shirtwaist company fire. Many female workers-mostly Jewish and Italian-American-were forced to jump to their death because exits were locked by their employer to prevent theft. As a result of this fire, the International Ladies Garment Worker union became powerful. Some say the New Deal was born from that fire. Al Smith, Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Wagner and Frances Perkins became active in social and economic issues after the fire. This industrial disaster led to the creation of factory fire codes and child labor laws in New York State.

The first female presidential cabinet member, Frances Perkins was influential in making these changes before being appointed by Franklin Roosevelt to his cabinet in 1932. Each March 25, unions in New York City commemorate the fire and agitate for worker safety. We are reminded of the necessity of unions as a lobbying agent for worker safety when we read of workers dying because of unsafe working conditions.

The deaths in a West Virginian mine are a recent reminder.

Throughout modern history totalitarian and reactionary nations have weakened labor organizations. In many parts of the world, unions have acted as a catalyst for positive social change. Labor unions organized the first opposition to apartheid in South Africa. In Poland, labor unions helped defeat the communist regime.

Nazi Germany, modern day Cuba and China, and all oppressive regimes feel the need to control or crush labor unions. On February 15, 2006, the New York Sun reported about striking bus drivers in Iran.

The wives of the striking bus drivers sent appeals through the use of e-mail for assistance. Judges in Iran had ordered the wives not to speak to the international media.

According to the article, 1,000 bus drivers are in jail because of the strike. There are indications of torture. The strike was called because of unpaid wages and a desire for increased wages. The article went on to say: "The strike has attracted the attention of the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters, who in January appealed to President Ahmadinejad to release jailed unionists." There was no indication of government or corporate disapproval of the actions of the Iranian government against the right of workers to organize in that country. It is ironic that Iran called the strike of their transit workers "illegal".

Courageous women in Iran have appealed to the conscience of the west to support their efforts to fight unjust working conditions. In March, we celebrate women's contributions to history. All of us should strive to remember the women in Iran who are fighting for their courageous husbands who are willing to confront an oppressive political establishment. We should remember the widows of the miners who died in West Virginia. Common men and women all over this globe deserve the dignity that comes through a living wage and a safe workplace. They deserve unions. A union fact that the website was remiss in their presentation was cited in a New York Times article of February 16, 2002:" Hotel housekeepers earn an average of $8.67 an hour nationwide or $18,000 a year for a full time worker, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The hotel workers' union says the average union wage for housekeeper is $13 an hour."

There is dissatisfaction in the American labor movement. Recently, the Laborers and Operating Engineers along with the Carpenters, Iron Workers, Bricklayers, and the Teamsters left the AFL-CIO Buildings and Trade Department. According to another February 15,2006 article in The New York Sun, this new alliance "will focus in almost 30 states where construction business has low union membership." This alliance claims they will focus on" increased union membership, workplace safety, and job security." I pray that this new alliance can be a beacon of hope for workers in the Gulf Region. A union fact is: American workers need unions.

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