The labor unions have always been in the forefront of the national struggle for workers' rights to organize, a living wage, safe workplaces, health and unemployment insurance, pensions and countless other benefits we have all come to take for granted. Many of these gains were won with the blood and other personal sacrifices of those workers who stood up to the depredations, and often violent, responses of their employers. Those early union struggles need to be remembered and appropriately re-enacted if we are to take the country back from the corporate interests that again control it, their political and judicial allies and the complicit mainstream media. Unfortunately, expecting the gravely weakened unions to take the lead in today's struggle by themselves is unrealistic and unfair, although their full participation in the battle is essential.
The labor movement opened itself to criticism by the behavior of some of its leaders in the past that undermined its image -- defending the retention of unproductive workers, insisting on overly generous benefit packages, etc. But, anyone who knows anything about unions is fully aware that these were aberrations that distracted attention from the invaluable role they have played in promoting a higher standard of living and democracy, not only in the workplace, but also for the country as a whole. At least in part because of these achievements, they have been systematically and unfairly demonized by big money interests for decades.
It is to be hoped that these sustained misrepresentations of what unions have fought for and achieved for all of us over the years will not result in a repetition today of the more extreme conditions that provoked their founding. Last year's explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia that killed 29 people and the disastrous blowout at BP's Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico that claimed eleven lives are eerie reminders of events that occurred at the turn of the last century. Last year was the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City that cost the lives of 146 workers (mostly young Jewish immigrant women) who were trapped in their workplace because their employers had barred the means of escape. Eyewitnesses to the tragedy saw a steady stream of workers pause helplessly amid the flames before jumping to their deaths on the sidewalk before their eyes.
The impact of the Triangle fire on the national psyche and on the organizing efforts of the unions cannot be overstated. Within five years, several clothing industry unions had gained recognition and played a key role in securing from their employers the 45-hour week, a living wage, paid vacations, health insurance and pensions. Mine, steel, textile, railroad, automobile and countless other workers had to suffer their own versions of employer-inflicted inhumanity, violence and multiple deaths and injuries before they secured recognition and some degree of workplace fairness and safety. We owe all of them a great deal -- at the very least, to remember and honor them for their courage and sacrifice.
Progressives succeeded in having many of these workplace rights (initially secured by the unions), adopted by specific states and municipalities and, later, enacted into Federal law, especially in the 1930s. These rights were expanded and enforced for the next 30 years until the Right Wing of the Republican Party mounted their systematic assault on ordinary working people, their families and the people who sought to represent them. We are now witnessing the consequences of three decades of corporate deregulation, tax breaks for the biggest corporations and the wealthiest Americans, and a complete disregard for the poor and vulnerable, including children and sick people -- a disgraceful and unsustainable gap between the ultra-rich and everyone else.
That the restoration of the power of the labor unions would be a huge benefit to the country at this time is undeniable and they should be supported and strengthened by the efforts of all of us who care about the American way of life -- and democracy itself. It will take a concerted effort by all persons with a sense of fairness, as well as a commitment to truly representative government, to fight the seemingly limitless greed of the country's billionaires and multimillionaires and its destructive effects on the political process.
Fortunately, Wisconsin's million-signature recall campaign against its union-busting governor (and Koch Brothers-funded lackey) has demonstrated what energized union members and their outraged neighbors can accomplish. Similarly, the ability of the Occupy Wall Street movement to strike chords that have resonated nationally with a large segment of the 99 percent of Americans whose voices and well-being have not counted in recent years is an encouraging development. There is hope, therefore, that effective progressive movements such as these, as in the past and with our energetic support, can save the country from the crony capitalists who have rigged the economy and the democratic process for their exclusive benefit and those political operatives who have benefitted hugely from doing their bidding.