From the Editor

Labor movement: a good idea

 

August 30, 2023



Monday is Labor Day. That is a quaint, almost 19th century holiday, a time when the picnics and lawn games came after boisterous downtown big city marches, the streets filled with row after row of salt-of-the-earth common men, Labor literally on the march. And, it was mostly men for most of the 20th century.

Alas, the days of a powerful labor movement is a black and white newsreel out of the 1950s, when one in three workers belonged to a union and almost every one of them worked for companies, large and small.

Today, unions in the private sector have been decimated by 75 years of concerted effort to destroy organized labor. If you know a union worker, she is more likely to be a teacher, nurse or bus driver than a factory or construction worker. That is because pressure has been kept up on elected politicians by those public sector employees to provide humane working conditions in schools, hospitals and local governments. But in the dog-eat-dog world of market capitalism, the big dog Elon Musks of the world have long gamed the system to, as the cliche has it, smash the workers efforts for decent wages and humane working conditions.

As the rhetorical question goes, are you better off than your grandparents were two generations ago? How did the eight hour day, 40 hour work week, time and a half overtime and two weeks paid vacations come about?

As the bumper sticker reads: brought to you by the labor movement.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” Frederick Douglass wrote 175 years ago. “It never has and it never will.” Since the 1950s corporate capitalism has been in the ascendancy. What do owners give workers besides the door, the boot and the back of their hand? Almost nothing, hardly a turkey, a day off or a holiday to enjoy either one.

For hundreds of years owners have diverted and divided workers, those natural brothers and sisters, first distracted by the color of our skin – racism – and then made to be afraid and disdain each other by our sex, whom we kiss and now how we define our essential selves.

At its best the union movement always knows that people march together, hand in hand, solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong. In this week after the 60th anniversary of the 1963 August 28 March on Washington, remember that the signs on stakes people held high read “Jobs and Freedom.” Along with recognition of their humanity and demands for dignity, Blacks and justice-seeking allies in 1963 understood that nothing lifts people out of poverty like good jobs at good wages.

For each of the very few of us who get to succeed on our own merits there are legions of us needing to figure out that it is our getting together, marching shoulder to shoulder, insisting that we are in this together and sticking it out in common cause as the path to our common freedom, dignity and equality.

Look around. It is the Amazon and Starbucks workers who are proving once again that the union makes us strong.

— Ken Stern

 

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