Ironic that as we here in the U.S. prepare to celebrate Labor Day, we revere greedy private equity buyout firms and hedge fund managers more than the men and women who built this nation.
But it doesn't have to be this way.
As you hear your children splash outside in your $750,000 home made possible by the career-launching college education you received, you might also want to thank the courageous union leaders whose tireless advocacy helped to elevate the economic circumstances of your parents and grandparents. In many cases, these union leaders fought for worker rights that made it possible for your forebears to rise to a station where they could prepare you for the life you are now leading.
Yes, there are union abuses but there are ten great labor leaders of the past who come to mind:
Harry Bridges- A Communist for much of his life, Bridges nevertheless was a tireless worker for the rights of Longshoremen everywhere. Harry: 'I would have worked with the devil himself if he'd been for the six hour day and worker control of the hiring hall."
Chavez, Cesar-founded the National Farm Workers Association that later became the United Farm Workers, Cesar led the disenfranchised against the profit-hungry grape growers.
David Dubinsky-Born in Belarus and an immigrant from Poland, David led the International Ladies Garment Worker's Union in a time when its mostly immigrant membership struggled to escape sweatshop traditions while becoming Americans. David also stood for political pragmatism- accepting FDR while more radical union leaders were espousing a Marxist agenda.
Samuel Gompers- A longtime leader of the American Federation of Labor, Gompers was one of the great pan-trades organizers of the American Labor movement throughout much of the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th.
Jimmy Hoffa- Yes, you read that right. Jimmy pursued some colorful business practices, but this International Brotherhood of Teamsters leader forged a master freight agreement that truckers are thankful for to this day. I am convinced that despite his shortcomings, Hoffa cared deeply about his men.
John L. Lewis- The roaring lion for coal miner's rights, this United Mine Workers president spoke truth to power- a power notorious for worker exploitation.
Philip Murray- This Scottish immigrant was the first president of the United Steelworkers of America. Serving in that post from 1942 to 1952, Murray presided over a time when the U.S. steel industry practiced pricing policies reminiscent of what was soon to come in the oil and energy industries.
A. Philip Randolph- Randolph's Bortherhood of Sleeping Car Porters- which he organized in 1925- was the first labor union made up predominantly of African-American workers. This was, of course, during a time of segregation and rampant racial discrimination- causes which Randolph addressed by virtue of his civil rights movement work right up to his death in 1979 at the age of 90.
Walter Reuther- Founder of the Americans for Democratic Action, a tireless civil rights advocate and a powerful voice in the anti-Communist union left, Reuther is prominently remembered for making the United Auto Workers a major force.
Albert Shanker- Until Shanker's rise teachers- and for that matter most all public sector employees- were forbidden to strike and certainly not inclined to do so. In a world where teachers were- and of course still are- underpaid- it was leaders such as the American Fedration of Teachers' Shanker who made a difference. He fought for the rights of educators to earn a decent living and partake of benefits reflective of their worth to society.
Sadly, though, all of these leaders are dead.
In a nation where workers are once again exploited in the cause of free trade and short-term profits, we need a new generation of labor leaders with some of the courage of the ones I have profiled.
Who is/will take their place?