“My view of the labor movement today,” he said in an interview, “is that we got too focused on our contracts and our own membership and forgot that the only way, ultimately, that we protect our members and workers in general is by fighting for justice for everybody.”The words are those of Bob King, head of the United Auto Workers. They appear in an important column by Bob Herbert in today's New York Times with the title Restoring a Hallowed Vision.
The fundamental issue is that “every human being deserves dignity and a decent standard of living,” he said, “and the whole point of the labor movement is to help make that happen.”
It is an important column. And it is not the first time a head of the UAW has demonstrated an understanding that unions need to fight for justice for everybody.
Herbert begins his column with another quote from King, about working people being sick and tired about the bosses getting the huge bonuses while the workers got the short end of the stick.
He then tells us about the Memphis sanitation worker's strike, in 1968, which was the reason Martin Luther King Jr. was in that Tennessee city when he was assassinated. Walter Reuther, the long-time head of the UAW, traveled to Memphis to give on behalf of the UAW $50,000 to help the sanitation workers. I had not known that, but I am not surprised to learn it.
Herbert tells us that some leaders of the UAW were shocked, then quotes a biographer of Reuther as making an impassioned defense of interracial solidarity. Herbert then offers these two brief paragraphs:
Three-thousand delegates to the U.A.W. convention later that year heard Reuther say: “We laid $50,000 on the line to demonstrate we meant business. Who helped us back in 1936 and 1937 when we were being beaten up and shot at, when our offices and our cars were being blown up by the gangsters hired by the corporations?I said I was not surprised. In about 7 weeks we will encounter the 47th anniversary of what we usually call the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington. It's official name was The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and it sought civil and economic rights for African-Americans. I was there, a 17-year-old who had just graduated from high school and was participating in demonstrations in New York against a hamburger chain that would not hire blacks. As a white I was in the distinct minority - perhaps 80% of the attendees were black. There was one large contingent from labor, and they proudly marched behind their banners from the United Auto Workers.
“Who helped us? The coal miners ... the clothing workers ... as long as I am identified with the leadership of this great union, we are going to extend a hand of solidarity to every group of workers who are struggling for justice.”
As I read Herbert's column this morning, my mind filled with myriad thoughts that connect with his words. I have not yet fully sorted them out, but feel as if I should nevertheless attempt to share - and perhaps explain - them.
Economic justice for everyone - not just those in unions. This is one thing that immediately came to mind. Think of those things we now take for granted at our places of employment, even if none of those there are unionized. 8 hour days. Overtime and holiday pay. Health insurance. Unemployment insurance. Workplace safety. All of these, and many other things, are the result of unionized workers who put themselves, their livelihoods, and sometimes their lives on the line.
Supporting people in other unions - without that solidarity, the different unions were isolated, easily attacked and suppressed by management, by the power of the wealthy and those who often run government to use the levers of power of government to crush unions. Unions that are isolated, as were those in PATCO (air traffic controllers) because they had supported Reagan and thought themselves different than other workers, find they lack that support and can more easily be crushed.
I am a union member as a teacher. My wife is a union member as an employee on the Hill. I have been the building rep. She is on the negotiating team. Many might not think of us a union people - she went to Harvard, I went to Haverford. She has a masters and a doctorate, I have two masters and was ABD before I left my program. Yet both of us need and value what we get from our unions. Both of us have learned that even highly educated middle class people are at risk if there is unbridled power on the behalf of management and often that power can only be opposed by people who will come together, in unions, to protect them all.
This past week the two teachers unions had their annual meeting. Because both have been somewhat critical with what the Obama administration is doing on education, they have been subjected to criticism from editorial boards and pundits. A decent and honorable man, David Obey, was called a water boy for the unions by Jon Alter because he sought to protect the jobs of teachers as a higher priority than some of the educational proposals of the administration. Teachers and their unions are regularly attacked - including by some here at Daily Kos - on the supposed grounds that they (a) keep bad teachers from being fired; (b) are too concerned with their members; (c) oppose the "reforms" that seem to be such the rage.
Let me make a simple statement - if the teachers unions get crushed, you will be seeing the beginning of the end of organized labor. There are over 3 million unionized teachers. Some belong to unions even though they work in states which bar collective bargaining for government workers. If these people - college educated, middle class - can be denied the protections of unionization, no one will be safe, no union contract cannot be broken.
Further, the accusations against teachers unions are largely false. They protect the rights of all teachers. That includes due process. There is nothing to prevent bad teachers from (a) not being hired in the first place; (b) being given tenure in those states that still have tenure (a decreasing number);, and (c) being discharged even if tenured. All it takes is for administrators to properly do their jobs.
It is a key responsibility of unions to protect their members. Argue against that and you argue against the very idea of unions.
Teachers unions are concerned with far more than their members, because their members are usually concerned with far more than themselves. Most of us do not become teachers for the money. And let me assure you, those people with the distorted notion that we have an easy job, working only 9 months with our summers and two long breaks during the year off, have no idea of the reality of our jobs.
I reacted viscerally to Herbert's column because I am a union member. I am a proud union member.
At times unions have become too focused on their own narrow interests. Herbert quotes King as recognizing that. He knows the only way to protect his members is to fight for justice - especially economic justice - for everybody.
The fundamental issue is that “every human being deserves dignity and a decent standard of living,” he said, “and the whole point of the labor movement is to help make that happen.”every human being deserved dignity and a decent standard of living - ponder those words. Think again of how much of what you assume for your employment has been because of unions. Then ponder again what is happening with globalization of economics, with companies now moving not to Right To Work states in the Southern US, but to countries with no history of unionization, where the corporate economic power can prevent the development of a union movement. Remember that as you shop, as you try to save a few bucks by going to a company that is not unionized, or whose suppliers are in China or other nations overseas in which workers have few rights. Remember also that those factories overseas do not have to meet our safety or environmental standards. every human being means all those workers for transnationals in other nations.
The widening economic disparity in this country is already pointing us in the direction of some third world nations. If a Democratic administration with a heavily Democratic Congress will not make and enforce policies that help the ordinary workers and their families, do not be surprised to see many of the economic rights we have assumed for half a century or more begin to disappear. We are already seeing undercutting of pensions, with defined benefit plans funded in large part by employers being replaced by 401Cs and 403Bs and the like, with any "excess" resources for the plans that continue being taken over for other purposes by the management. Meanwhile even some Democrats begin to talk about reducing benefits and raising the age for Social Security. Let's consider just the age - as a teacher perhaps I can work until I am 70. But what if you are a coal miner, a construction worker? Is there no one making policy that realizes not all jobs can be done well into one's 7th decade? We acknowledge that in the military, allowing retirement after 20 years with one level of benefits, after 30 with increased benefits.
We are seeing cut back in medical insurance. We see government bailouts of financial institutions largely responsible for the current worldwide economic crisis at the same time as those who are unemployed as a result of the crisis have their social safety net capped, terminated, putting them and their families at severe economic risk.
I am a teacher. I am in a union. There are those who are using claims of educational crisis to eliminate tenure, to increase (union-free) charter schools, to break the teachers unions. Understand this - if we can be broken, you will lose one of the few remaining bulwarks protecting the economic and legal rights of ordinary people.
Unions fight for justice for everybody - that is how I titled this posting.
I believe it.
Some unions have problems. Some have been corrupt. But so have some corporations. Our newspapers bloviate about unions problems but somehow ignore the equivalent in corporations, otherwise the Enrons and the Lehman Bros and all the other corporate scandals would not go on as long as they do, and have the devastating impact they have had.
If you belong to a union, it may be incumbent upon you to devote some of your time to union matters. I did as a building rep, my wife did on her negotiating team. I may have to do it again.
Just remember - without unions we would all be much worse off economically, even if we have never belonged to a union.
There are those out to break unions. All unions. Perhaps starting with the teachers unions. Republicans hate teachers unions, because we usually tilt towards Democrats. That's because usually Democrats are far more sympathetic to the needs of working people of all types.
There is a new generation of labor leadership. Rich Trumpka is one example, as many found out in Pittsburgh. Leo Gerard is another. And as I have learned from Bob Herbert's column, so is Bob King.
Unions fight for justice for everybody.
I am a union member. I am proudly a union member. I support the right of workers everywhere to organize.
And I will not support any political figure whose actions are hostile to working people.
What about you?