Many people who were formerly members of labor unions are pretty upset about the latest assault on unions by the governor of Wisconsin and some members of that state's legislature. Unfortunately, those who do not know the history of the labor union movement cannot fully understand what work was like in this country before labor unions.
These people believe there have always been an eight-hour workday and a 40-hour workweek, and it all came about by the generosity of employers. It is understandable that many people age 50 or younger genuinely do not understand what the ruckus is about. They never learned in school about child labor in America and how, at one time in our history, school-aged children had to go to work to help support their families. They have no knowledge about the long, hard fight that workers had to wage in this country to get decent conditions and benefits in the workplace. They have never had to walk picket lines to get a raise in pay.
Unfortunately, it is traditional in America that after battles have been fought and won and issues settled, they are relegated to the past and the country moves on. Our education fails to teach us so many important lessons learned in our past, which is why we so often find ourselves fighting the same battles over and over again. For example, some young women don't have any idea today how difficult the fight was to gain the right to vote.
I can tell you that, after being a longtime union member, I was absolutely shocked when I applied for employment in a nonunion workplace and was told I could be fired for discussing my wages with another employee. It took me a while to realize that this meant that people doing the same work were not paid the same wages. You see, that's one of the things that does not happen when people are members of a union.
But because union membership has declined steadily since the 1970s, many people have already forgotten the advantages that were secured through collective bargaining. I suppose people think things like pensions and rights to health care were bestowed upon workers by the generosity of their employers. I would dare say that individual workers would not enjoy most of the benefits they have today had it not been for social reformers and labor organizers. It was labor lobbyists like Nelson Cruikshank who helped usher in things like Social Security and Medicare insurance benefits for workers, as well as Social Security disability benefits for those unable to work.
Anyone who has studied the labor union movement realizes the tremendous impact it had on the lives and fortunes of the working class. Some companies could hardly wait for unions to go away so that they could do away with pension plans and substitute 401(k) plans, which originally were meant as supplemental to one's pension. Labor unions were formed to protect employees from employers who were more concerned with their bottom lines than the safety and well-being of the people that did their work.
But from the earliest days of their existence, unions have faced opposition. So when the carmakers were having financial problems recently it was not surprising to hear some people quickly blame the unions, accusing them of breaking the backs of the automobile companies by demanding overly generous benefits. And the government has been used countless times to support employers in their various efforts to break strikes and drive out union organizers.
Certainly there were some unions that were corrupt. People like Jimmy Hoffa were responsible for giving the labor union movement a bad name. But the good deeds that were performed by the movement far outweighed its imperfections. And one thing is for sure: It wasn't unions that put people out of work by sending the jobs to other countries.
Stripping people of their rights to collective bargaining is just one more attack on the middle class. Since it has happened in Wisconsin, residents of other states need to be on the lookout.
Don't turn your back.
You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling her at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.