In 2010, I was the Democratic nominee for US Congress for the 1st District of Virginia, which runs from about 20 miles South of DC to the Hampton Roads area. In the Southern part of the district, the economy is dominated by the Newport News Shipyard where our nation's nuclear aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines are built and where workers in the late 70's once clashed in a bloody dispute with management, fighting for their right to unionize under the United Steelworkers. Workers at the shipyard had grown disgusted with their 10 cent raises and the dismal package of benefits they were given including a health care plan that would not cover your infant in their first ten days of its life
To unionize, the workers followed all the rules. Despite facing difficult odds, the union narrowly won the election. The company however, backed by Republican Governor John Dalton, refused to recognize the union. Eventually, workers were forced to strike. The conflict that ensued was labeled Black Monday and resulted in the hospitalization of over 200 workers. In the end, the workers won their right to unionize and negotiated a contract. According to Gene Magruder, Political Action Chairman for United Steelworkers Local 8888: "That was a great contract. We got much better health care and wages. It was the best we'd ever seen. Safety also improved under the union. The Steelworkers have always been big on safety so that wasn't new to the organization but it was new to the plant. OSHA used to come around all the time but now we never see them."
Running for Congress, I heard dozens of these tales from committed union members. All of them were gripping, dramatic, had moral clarity, and featured downtrodden workers as unexpected heroes in the fight for dignity and human working conditions. But aren't these the battles of the past? I've also heard the list of union accomplishments rattled off by any number of labor leaders: the weekend, the 40 hour work week, overtime, safety regulations, etc. What is there left to fight for? In my opinion, plenty.
Gains in worker safety are reversing, the middle class is being squeezed out of existence, workplace discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation (among other things) is still alive and well, and political power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of those with the resources to buy access. Not only is labor still relevant, a strong labor movement is needed now more than ever.
As Republicans look for budget cuts in the 18% of the federal budget constituting non-defense discretionary spending, no one should be surprised that, in addition to cutting Elmo, the GOP wants major cuts to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) which is THE vital agency for worker safety. OSHA was actually created in 1970 under President Nixon but every Republican President since then has done what they could to hamstring OSHA's ability to fulfill their mandate. In 2000, OSHA actually had fewer people on its staff than in 1975, despite the fact that it had a much bigger job to do. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at current staffing levels it would take over 100 years for OSHA to inspect every US workplace. The impact of defunding OSHA was readily apparent under the Bush Administration when workplace fatalities ticked upward for the first time since 1994.
Since the Obama Administration took control in 2008 OSHA funding has increased and workplace fatalities have resumed their downward trend. It is unions that advocate for workplace safety regulations; unions that fight for appropriate levels of funding for OSHA; and unions that hold employers accountable by reporting violations. Improved workplace safety is not just good for union workers. It is good for all workers.
For decades now, prosperity has been shared less and less equally across our society. According to the Economic Policy Institute, wages as a share of GDP are near an all time low while profits as a share of GDP are at their highest level of the past 50 years. We are less equal now than at any time since 1928, inequality has been on the rise since the 70's (prior to that it had been declining), and 90% of Americans have seen their wages stagnate since the 80's. What's more, the growing inequality is primarily caused by larger and larger pieces of the pie going to the ultra rich, the top 0.1%.
These trends also mirror the rapid decline in union membership over a similar period. Union membership stood at 20% in 1983 and is now less than 12%. You can decide for yourself whether or not you care about this mounting inequality, but even Alan Greenspan says: "This is not the type of thing which a democratic society - a capitalist democratic society - can really accept without addressing."
It is unions that give a voice to the middle class; unions that help workers take home an equitable share of the pie, it is unions that fight for improvements in health care and an increase in the minimum wage. A more equitable society is not just good for union members, it is good for every person in our country and it is certainly good for the middle class.
Workplace discrimination of all sorts is still a reality for many Americans. As a woman, I'm going to focus specifically on gender discrimination not because it is the most important or most egregious sort but because it is the kind with which I am most familiar. While things have improved, we've still got some serious work to do. Women earn 78% of what men earn. America is the only developed country in the world which does not require a single day of paid maternity leave (out of 181 countries studied we are joined by only Papua New Guinea and Swaziland). Until the recent passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act insurers could discriminate against women based solely on their gender. Women are also at a critical transitional point where we are trying to balance high-power traditionally male jobs with our still large household responsibilities. To make it all work, our corporate institutions will have to adapt. It is unions who fight back against workplace discrimination; unions who fight for regulatory changes that help to even the playing field for women; and unions who advocate for women's health. A workplace free from discrimination where men and women can equally flourish is not just good for union members and it's also not just good for women, it is good for everyone!
There is an increasing sense in the country (one that I share) that political power is no longer held by the people but rather by those with the money to buy access. In my own campaign, it was impossible to deny the cost-benefit analysis. I could either spend an hour of my time meeting with voters where, if it was an extraordinarily productive hour, I could probably meet 50 voters. Or I could spend an hour on the phone talking to large donors nationwide in order to fund mail or TV advertisements that would reach tens or hundreds of thousands of voters. It wasn't hard to figure out the most efficient use of my time.
In the wake of the Citizens United decision, matters have only gotten worse. Corporations and unions are now allowed to contribute unlimited amounts to campaigns and can do so completely anonymously. In terms of dollars, unions could never hope to match the firepower of corporate interests but they are the only groups out there with any power whose sole focus and goal is to advocate for workers. This political consideration brings us to the very core of what's going on in Wisconsin.
Don't be fooled by the discussion of deficits, while Wisconsin's fiscal challenges are real, that's not what this fight is about. As I mentioned in my post in the James River Journal yesterday, the unions involved have already signaled their willingness to make sacrifices on their wages and benefits. The fact that Governor Walker excluded from his attempts to gut collective bargaining only those unions with strong Republican membership (police and fire) makes the political nature of this battle clear. Wisconsin's Governor Walker is including the destruction of collective bargaining in his budget negotiations because he thinks he can get away with it; because he thinks that he can hide this power-grab within the legitimate shared sacrifice of budget cutting that voters generally support. Republicans scapegoat unions because they are the only organizations with any power to stand up to corporate interests.
Are unions perfect? Of course not. They are looking out for the interests of their members just as corporations look out for the interests of their shareholders. I myself have at times been openly critical of the teachers' unions for protecting their members' interests to the detriment of our education system. But as quite possibly the only organizations with any power dedicated to fighting for working people and the middle class, I am convinced that a stronger labor movement will lead to a stronger America. Jeff Rowe, President of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1340 put it this way: "There are bad seeds out there but they are few and far between and they are minimized by everyone else who understands the greater good."
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