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How Unions Saved the Constitution

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WISCONSIN PENSIONS
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With all the lip-service being paid to the Constitution these days, you'd think unions would get a bit more respect. Without the sacrifices of union activists, the Constitution's promise of free speech might never have become a reality.

In rallies much like those currently being held in Wisconsin, and across the nation in state capitals this Saturday, workers during America's first Gilded Age fought back against the forces of corporate greed that ground them to the bone.

In those days, the Supreme Court believed that the First Amendment to the Constitution, which protects freedom of speech, only applied to the federal government, not the states and the local governments. So any governor, or mayor, or town boss was free to put you in jail or kick you out of town for saying something they didn't like -- union organizing usually being at the top of the list. But union supporters didn't take that lying down -- they flooded towns with speakers who violated local laws that limited free speech.

One of those early union leaders in the fight for free speech was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the "Rebel Girl" of martyr Joe Hill's famous song. Flynn worked for the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World, who organized miners and migrant workers in the western states in the early 1900s. These workers had little political clout because they moved from job to job and weren't registered to vote. Presaging the civil rights movement, their principal recourse was a mass protest.

Flynn helped lead one of those "free speech fights" in Missoula, Montana, in 1908. Here's how she described it:

We sent out a call to all 'footloose rebels to come at once -- to defend the Bill of Rights.' A steady stream of I.W.W. members began to flock in by freight cars... As soon as one speaker was arrested, another took his place. The jail was soon filled.

Flynn also related some humorous aspects to the mass tactics:

Not all the I.W.W. workers were speakers. Some suffered from stage fright. We gave them copies of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. They would read along slowly, with one eye hopefully on the cop, fearful that they would finish before he would arrest. One such was being escorted to jail, about two blocks away, when a couple of drunks got into a pitched battle. The cop dropped him to arrest them. When they arrived at the jail, the big strapping I.W.W. was tagging along behind. The cop said in surprise: "What are you doing here?" The prisoner retorted, "What do you want me to do -- go back there and make another speech?"

These mass protests in favor of free speech definitely had an effect. In 1925, the Supreme Court finally ruled that the First Amendment did apply to state and local governments, nationalizing the protection of free speech. Without the concerted action of union supporters, that victory would not have been possible.

Unions have contributed remarkable things to the American way of life: the growth of the middle class; expansion of health care and social security; paid vacations and paid sick leave; a work week that leaves time for families to enjoy each other. None of these things were possible in Elizabeth Gurley Flynn's day. As she said in 1962: "We never heard of vacations, let alone vacations with pay."

Make no mistake: What is at risk in Wisconsin, and every state in America, is the quality of life that American workers have fought -- and died -- for during the past century. When plutocrats like the Koch brothers tell the governor of an American state to roll back the clock on public employees, they are seeking to end protections for all workers. The Kochs are part of an ideological movement that hopes to end all legislation controlling wages, hours, and workplace safety -- returning America to a "Social Darwinism" that ensures survival of the fittest (read: richest). This is the constitutional theory that prevailed before the New Deal. To these extremists, Ayn Rand is on par with James Madison.

We must never forget that the most important achievement of the union movement was the protection of the right that makes all other rights possible -- freedom of speech. The First Amendment comes with a union label.

This article is adapted from one that originally appeared in the Journal of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association.