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February 12, 2010

Union Values and the Test of Time

-- by Dave Johnson

This post originally appeared at Campaign for America's Future (CAF). I am a Fellow with CAF.

A couple of weeks ago I bought a hat with "AFL-CIO" written on it. Inside the hat there is a label that reads, "Union Made in the USA." I was thinking about how unions wouldn't buy cheap hats made in China or by some non-union sweatshop even if it was in the US. They stick with their values.

There are many examples of unions sticking with their values. Union locals don't use non-union print shops - and you might notice that many candidates for office recognize this and use union printers to print their own campaign materials, because they know that union members look for this. Union members stick together when other workers are trying to bargain for wages, benefits, rights and respect. People who work directly for unions get good wages and benefits. And union members generally show up and vote for candidates who support broad American values that say "we're in this together" rather than the conservative "you're on your own" philosophy.

This got me thinking about where we are with the economy, following the decrease of union membership and how-many-years of corporate/conservative domination of the "marketplace of ideas." Decades of this "market" stuff has been driven into our heads, the media is entirely corporate and you just will not see or hear or read someone from labor talking about how joining a union benefits workers or how labor values are good for us. Everything we hear is entirely the conservative/corporate/Wall Street perspective now that we are protected from having to hear other opinions. How has that worked out for all of us?

Let's look at some of the core values of America's labor movement, and see how these are standing up to the "stress test" our economy is undergoing.

First, the law. According to the National Labor Relations Board,

"Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act ("NLRA") in 1935 to protect the rights of employees and employers, to encourage collective bargaining, and to curtail certain private sector labor and management practices, which can harm the general welfare of workers, businesses and the U.S. economy."

This statement reflects American values: Employees and employers, together. Protecting rights. Encouraging collective action: demcoracy. Promoting the general welfare of workers, businesses and the economy. This is a statement that says promoting democracy, justice and equality boosts all of us, helping us to prosper together.

Please take a moment to read Section 1 of The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). In summary it says that lack of bargaining power by workers against corporations leads to depressions (we call them recessions now) because of depressed purchasing power. And it leads to strikes which disrupt commerce. Therefore it is the policy of the United States to encourage collective bargaining. If you have more time, read through some of the things this law says because you will be shocked at the extent to which our government now ignores its own laws, acting in a one-sided way allowing businesses to fire organizers and intimidate workers but doing so little for working people. How has that worked out for us?

Take a look at the AFL-CIO mission statement:

The mission of the AFL-CIO is to improve the lives of working families—to bring economic justice to the workplace and social justice to our nation.

This doesn't say they do this for AFL-CIO members only, it says they do this for all of us. How would sticking with values like these be working out for us?

Change To Win says they are,

... a new movement of working people equipped to meet the challenges of the global economy and restore the American Dream in the 21st century: a paycheck that can support a family, affordable health care, a secure retirement and dignity on the job.

If only values like these were dominant in our economy today.

The SEIU says they are.

... an organization of 2.2 million members united by the belief in the dignity and worth of workers and the services they provide and dedicated to improving the lives of workers and their families and creating a more just and humane society.

Wouldn't it be great if these were the dominant values that our economy operated under today?

Union values: To improve lives. Social justice. Dignity. Just and humane. Security. People in unions believe things like: Solidarity: Stick together. Protect jobs. We're in this together. Good wages and good benefits for any of us help all of us. And this means workers and businesses together. Seriously, working people take pride in what they do, and like every else they want the organizations they are part of to succeed. In the case of businesses of course the interests of working people are that their companies do well because then they do well. Everyone is happiest when there is harmony and good times are shared.

These are values that so many of us agree with. When these values were more widespread our economy was functions in a better way. The middle class was strong, and gains year after year. But in recent decades we have seen a Wall Street/big-corporate/conservative campaign of propaganda against these values. We hear praise for the wealthy CEO cult and the largest monopolistic corporations, and are confronted by an attitude that all of us should serve the interests of the entitled wealthiest, as if we exist at their behest. For them it is about getting as much money and power as they can, for themselves and only for themselves. We hear about how a few "top performers" deserve vast fortunes. We hear, "Greed is good," "The market should decide." We hear divisive class-warfare, like, "Rich people create jobs" and, "Did you ever get a job from a poor person?" We hear that if we dare tax them to pay for the infrastructure that enables their prosperity they will pack up their companies and take their jobs with them. These slogans come from a different kind of business interest -- the Wall Streeters and monopolistic giant corporations who want everything for themselves and to leave the mess behind for the rest of us.

The result of the conservative-values approach is that a very few at the top do better and better while the rest of us -- including most of the businesses in the country -- find it harder and harder to just get by. Jobs and factories are shifted out of the country - beyond the protections of our business, labor and environmental laws and regulatory protections. Local and regional businesses are knocked out or swallowed up. As a result of this shift toward Wall Street values today's workplace is characterized by increasing working hours or just workload, high stress, fear of layoffs, low or reduced wages, jobs sent overseas, loss of health care, loss of pensions and a general loss of dignity and security.

So again, how is this shift away from labor's values -- working America and small/medium business' values -- to Wall Street/ Wal-Mart values working out for all of us?

Posted by Dave Johnson at February 12, 2010 8:53 AM


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