Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Workers' Rights: Wisdom and Warnings

President Harry Truman warned listeners of his day with these words: The only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know.

As Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, factions in the U. S. Congress, and ALEC move to erode and perhaps eliminate workers’ rights, it is your duty to know your history.

Photo by Al Griffin

Conventional Wisdom:

Some people claim that an unfettered marketplace is best. They argue that inferior products and business practices will wither as a result of market pressures. Believing that makers of these products have daring and cunning sufficient to create and strive, they persuade themselves that anyone else is a taker, a creature inferior, and in a modern-day version of Social Darwinism, can and should be cut like chaff from fine wheat.

The history of the marketplace is less persuasive, however. Consider:
  • Female teachers in the nineteenth century were paid 40-60% less than male teachers. Today, wage disparities still exist along gender lines in spite of consciousness raising and the recent Lily Ledbetter Law. Today’s woman in all professions earns less than her male counterpart, but the gap is closing. Teachers and their representatives have helped to bring about this progress through negotiated contracts that reward salaries according to education and experience, not gender.
  • Nineteenth-century coal miners accepted risk and hazards that we have since found unacceptable, and changes for the better were a consequence of organized labor negotiating and even striking in behalf of workers. The wars were bloody; the change hard fought.
  • Shirtwaist factory workers organized and struck in 1909 for better pay and working conditions. The owners of the Triangle Waist Factory never agreed to the terms, but even the improvements brought about by the strike would not have saved the 146 dead after a fire that the fire department, once on the scene, put out in 30 minutes. Fire hoses had no water source, the elevator and fire escape failed, and the nature of the work made the workplace highly flammable. The City of New York had to design new standards and attach penalties so that clothing makers were safer as they worked.
  • Since the 1980s, in an increasingly unregulated market, airlines have sought ways to catch up with the rising, racing costs of fuel, competitive markets, online ticketing, and employee benefits. One branch of this struggle has been to renegotiate pilot and attendant contracts in favor of longer hours and increased employee contributions toward health care and pension costs. By the 1990s, the FAA became aware of the effect upon safety. Pilot fatigue was a noted factor in crashes, but marketplace pressures delayed FAA intervention until 2011.

These four examples represent the trend from workers at the mercy of owners--the makers--to workers with better opportunities to attain the American Dream.  The examples should persuade you in favor of organized labor as an important force in securing equal opportunities for workers and the public safety. But…(you knew one was coming, right?)

Warnings: 

Another of ALEC’s goals for 2014 is legislation to undermine unions in public service. Like Right to Work, an employee choice bill called the Public Employee Choice Act allows workers to opt-out of union representation while enjoying all the benefits of union negotiation. Such legislation sounds favorable, especially to those workers who see a useful chunk of their wages diverted to a union so why would anyone object to such choices for public workers? After all, this legislation seems to represent what we Americans value highly: the freedom to choose. But this legislation will have the net effect of eliminating our freedom to choose by giving one segment of society, the makers, permission to ignore organized labor public and private. It will also hinder a union's ability to thrive.

One of the most powerful political forces is organized labor.  Once upon a time, using money donated and certainly not stemming from union dues, organized labor affected political outcomes through advertising and campaign donations. In addition, unions were able to marshal their members as volunteers to knock on doors, distribute campaign information, and drive voters to the register and to vote. 

Now, a mere 11-12% of the work force continues to try to make a difference in the political and social landscape populated by employers who use their own bully pulpits to affect outcomes. The scales are heavily in favor of employers, especially after the Citizens United decision. Organized labor must continue to work in behalf of the greater good, not just a narrow population. They have made the workplace better.


Guard against voices that would erase the progress made through a century of struggle. Those voices may wish to alter your security and freedoms for decades to come.