Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall! Where was Flint?

Perhaps the most memorable phrase in President Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural Address was this:

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall . . . “

As eloquent as this was, another landmark event was sadly missing.  How about Flint, Michigan, as a symbol of the great sitdown strikes in the cold winter of 1936-37 that became the rallying cry for workers to organize into unions?

It was hard not to be thrilled by the imagery expressed by references to Seneca Falls, where the women’s suffrage movement started, to Selma, where the civil rights movement began to take hold and to Stonewall, long a symbol of the battle for gay rights.  Each one of these symbolized how ordinary people were able to mobilize and move the nation’s reluctant leaders to embrace the right of women to vote, the lifting of many of the burdens that were carried by minorities and finally recognizing that our gay brothers and sisters have rights, too.

The worker movement of the period definitely belongs in this list as one of the four great mass movements of ordinary people that created change in U.S history.  It took thousands of demonstrations, rallies, speeches, essays and letters to the editor to bring about women’s suffrage and 72 years from the time of the Seneca Falls, NY, meeting in 1848 to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.  It took nearly 45 years from the “Bloody Sunday” march over the bridge at Selma in 1965 to the election of the first African-American President; and it took more than 40 years from the police bashing of gays in 1969 at the Stonewall Tavern in New York City for the Armed Services to recognize gay rights.

The fight for workers to win the right to join unions took about 70 years from the great railroad strikes of the 1870s followed by other tragic events like the Homestead Strike, the Pullman Strike and the Bay View Massacre.  The rights came with the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935 that finally conferred the right to collective bargaining upon working people.  The law was fought bitterly by corporate America and it was only when workers began taking control of their own destiny in the sitdown at the General Motors plant in Flint that real change for working people occurred.  The workers were vilified by most in the nation’s press, but their courage to stand up became a rallying cry for workers everywhere; sitdowns sprang up throughout 1937, adding starch to working people, and eventually unions grew and thrived.

Many economists believe that the power of the labor unions during that period helped more than any other single factor to create the middle-class.

How could President Obama have not included a reference to workers and to labor unions?  There was nothing in the speech to indicate any awareness of the important of labor to creating the a decent standard of living for ordinary Americans.

Was it an oversight or a desire to avoid the topic that caused to President to fail to include the great unionizing efforts of the 1930s, 40s and 50s or to mention the role of labor in the 21st Century?  Either way, it was a critical omission, and one that signifies that he may have deserted the labor movement, even though the nation’s unions never deserted him during the last four years. — Ken Germanson, Jan. 22, 2013.

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The myths of R-T-W laws

Myths continue to dominate discussions of the so-called right-to-work laws, as witnessed by letters to the editor and comments from columnists who should seem to know better.

The principal myth is in the name, “Right-to-work,” since the law confers no right to a job for anyone!  It’s an ancient bit of clever marketing by pro-business lobbyists to misname something so as to give advantage in a debate.

Myth No. 2 involves the view that leaders of unions – sitting in far-away seats of luxury – make decisions for the union’s members.  Nothing could be further from the truth: by and large unions are one of the most democratic institutions in our society, where decisions are made through voting, where strikes require extraordinary support and where officers are elected.  (To be fair, there have been situations where unions have acted undemocratically, but such occurrences have been widely overplayed and are now largely in the past.)

Myth No. 3 covers the principle of the union shop, which is often mislabeled a “closed shop” that has been outlawed since 1947.  The union shop merely requires all workers to pay for the right of representation, based on the principle that all workers who benefit from the wages and benefits bargained by the union should pay the costs of such representation.  In addition in “open shops,” where not all workers are members, the union is required by law to represent every worker – union or not – in grievances without discrimination.  Thus, the union must defend a non-member worker who is fired just as vigorously as a member worker.

Myth No. 4 is that unions cause a company to close, as referenced recently in the Hostess Bakery closing in Kansas City.  Recognize that a decision to close up shop is made by management, not the union; in fact, unions have many times worked hard to cooperate with companies to take actions to save firms in financial troubled.  In most cases, mismanagement or failure to keep up with technology is behind company closures.

Myth No. 5 is that if workers don’t like the wages or benefits or the treatment they receive at a company, they’re free to quit and go elsewhere.  That’s like saying, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!”  Can the workers have NO say in these matters?  Today, finding a job is not as easy as the letter writer may think.

Myth No. 6 is that somehow companies will flock to Michigan now that it has this slave labor law in place.  Check out the reasons why companies move; far down the ladder are the labor laws.  Far higher up is the ability to attract skilled workers, something that better-paid union workers usually provide.

There have been many myths perpetrated in the labor law discussions, and they should not color the thinking of policy makers in Wisconsin. — Ken Germanson, Jan. 1, 2013