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Occasionally one encounters a piece of writing that absolutely should be read, and after one reads it, there is no doubt one now has an obligation, and it is to make that piece as widely known as possible.  This morning's Washington Post has such a piece, by Katrina vanden Heuvel, who is editor and publisher of The Nation, and now provides a little balance from the progressive side with a weekly column on the op ed page.

This morning's column is No holiday for labor unions.  Allow me to begin with her ending, to whet your appetite with her final paragraph:  

For all of their flaws, unions give voice to workers, and not just their members. Their "small d" democratic strength is a vital counter to the special-interest big money that has so distorted our politics. And their revival is central to building a new foundation for this economy, one that will ensure that it works once more for working people.

Please keep reading.

I write this from the perspective of someone who has once again taken on the mantle of union leadership.  As of yesterday, I am again the principal building rep for our school.  We are entitled to 4, and I have gotten three other teachers, all about half my age or less, to agree to serve along side me.  For the first time in our school's history we are organizing a faculty advisory counsel.  We are doing this at a time when teachers' unions are particularly under the gun as some education "reformers" view them as an obstacle to what they are trying to push upon American schools.  It is also a time when the 4 million unionized teachers represent the largest remaining unionized sector of the American workforce, which now has less than 8% of the private sector employees unionized, and less than 13% of the total national workforce.

vanden Heuvel is blunt, and her column is full of relevant data.  She begins with simple words:  Labor Day this year comes draped in mourning.  


Because so many have suffered so much economically.  Continuing with her first paragraph:  

More than half of all workers have experienced a spell of unemployment, taken a cut in pay or hours, been forced to go part-time or seen other such problems during and after the Great Recession. Collapsing stock and house prices have destroyed a fifth of the wealth of the average household. Nearly six in ten Americans have canceled or cut back on holidays.

Without unions, as vanden Heuvel notes, we have no voice against the other institutions and fortce attempting to drive the economy,  despite the fact that unions have gotten the big issues right far more often than those other institutions collectively.

vanden Heuvel then runs through a series of issues where the concerns raised by unions were correct, but ignore by the bipartisan consensus, with a result that workers were damaged, but so was the economy as whole.  For example,  unions warned about letting China and Japan play by different rules but we got free-trade agreements that resulted in massive transfers of wealth and the loss of nearly one in three jobs.  Unions raised questions on corporate governance, on making CEOs less answerable, but were ignored, and the result was the corporate malfeasance of the likes of Enron and Adelphi and Global Crossing.  

Let me quote one paragraph from this portion of the piece:  

On government regulation, labor fought a pitched battle against privatization and deregulation that Reagan conservatives and New Democrats made fashionable. Now in one area after another, privatization has been revealed as a source of waste, fraud and abuse -- from Halliburton to Blackwater. Deregulation contributed directly to the corporate and financial debauch that brought the economy down, with the human costs apparent from the Gulf of Mexico to Appalachia to the eggs we eat.

As a proud union member, I have written on the importance of unions in the past.  Absent unions most Americans would not have 5-day weeks, 8 hour workdays, paid holidays and vacations.  It was unions that helped the American workforce achieve several benefits that now seem disappearing to corporate greed - paid medical insurance and defined-benefit pensions.

Unions built the American middle class.  Unionized jobs provided a certain modicum of security, pay for working overtime or on weekends and holidays, a level of income that allowed for buying a home, and paying for education for children beyond what the unionized workers themselves had been able to achieve.

Our workforce may now be different.  Perhaps we no longer have so much heavy industry, as Detroit builds fewer cars, and those that are built use less human labor proportionally.   That does not mean the needs of workers are any less -  they still need the ability to bargain collectively, to have their safety ensured, to be paid livable wages and be given benefits.  Corporations who do not recognize that have lost the wisdom shown by Henry Ford, who paid his workers enough to buy the vehicles they built and thus sold far more cars and got far richer than he otherwise would have.  

Unions may not be perfect, but neither are corporations.  We allow the bashing of unions for the misdeeds of a few but somehow how now corporatized media is unwilling to offer the same criticism of misdeeds of corporate leaders.  They somehow see nothing wrong with having the CEO of Honeywell serving on the Cat Food Commission and slanting the considerations to the benefit of his company, yet probably would scream were a Leo Gerard or a Rich Trumka on an equivalent board on the grounds that they would be biased towards their members.   I would hope they would, because protecting union members benefits all workers.  

I am a teacher.  The states with the highest income level tend to be those that do not have right to work laws that make it difficult to organize into unions.  States with unionized teacher workforces have higher test scores, because those test scores are strongly correlated with higher income level.  Higher family income makes it more likely that there will be higher levels of education in the family, and a greater ability of the younger generation to continue their own educations.

I can point to many failures of this administration, and of the Democratic control of the Congress.  For all the achievements to which Obama and his team might point, given the economic crisis he inherited and which may be the downfall of Democratic control, I am prepared to argue that the failure of the administration to put its full force behind card check may turn out to be as big an error as it made.  The administration had a chance to reverse the undermining of the union movement in this country.  Revitalized unions would then have been in a position to provide counterweight to the influence of certain parts of the corporate sector that are too shortsighted and too selfish in their vision to think of the long term good of their own corporations and of the nation as a whole.  Revitalized unions would have led to increased income for the middle class, a raising up of more to the middle class, and more income to help fuel an economic recovery.  

That might not have happened immediately, and perhaps even passage of card check in the first six months would not have made a huge difference in the economic picture we face at this moment.  But it would have restored the confidence of the average American family that the Administration and the Congressional Democrats had a concern for the interests of ordinary folks.  It would have provided more motivation to support continued Democratic control.  It would have give more enthusiasm to the political process from our side of the political equation.

And it would have been good for the American economy.  For all workers.  And because workers would have had more economic security, and more income, and a greater chance to build and maintain wealth, it ultimately would even have been better for shareholders of many corporations, now and in the long term.

We need unions.  If we do not revitalize the union movement in this nation, we will continue down our current path of ever-increasing economic disparity.  The concentration of wealth to the few will allow them to continue to tilt the political process in their favor.  That will also tilt not only the Congress and ultimately the White House, but also the Courts -  think Citizens United, and consider the implications that holds when corporate interests can spend as much as they want while unions with decreasing membership lack the resources to provide balance.

There is more I would like to have seen in vanden Heuvel's op ed.  There are issues I want to see raised to the attention of the American public at large.  

But I praise her piece for what it does say.  I urge you not only to read it, but to pass it on to everyone you know, to urge them to read and consider.  That includes current and potential elected officials.

My wife is a Ph.D. scholar.  She works for a prestigious federal institution.  She has found that she needs a union for basic reasons, things as ordinary as bathroom equality for female workers.  She is now on the negotiating team for her union.

I am again a building rep.  I write this from a proud union household.

We have benefits of unions.  I intend to fight like hell on behalf of unions, not only for my benefit, but for the benefit of all Americans.

How about you?

Originally posted to teacherken on Wed Sep 01, 2010 at 03:09 AM PDT.

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