Labor Unions Remain Relevant

By Bahr, Morton | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), September 4, 1995 | Go to article overview

Labor Unions Remain Relevant


Bahr, Morton, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


At the end of the last century, American workers commonly worked 48 to 60 hours, often six days a week. There was no job security, no overtime pay, no retirement, no vacations, no paid holidays. Wages were miserable, working conditions worse. The minimum wage did not exist.

At that time there were no laws against child labor or unsafe conditions. In mines, factories and sweat shops, if you survived an on-the-job injury it frequently meant the end of your working life anyway and a trip to the poor house. There was no workers' compensation program. There was no law assuring workers the right to representation. Even then, the media questioned the "relevance" of the labor movement, although workers did not.

Here at the end of the 20th century, forces are working to bring us back to those awful times. We are in what Labor Secretary Robert Reich properly describes as an all-out war against workers. And, labor's "relevance," although still questioned by the media, has never been more obvious.

During this century, the labor movement has grown beyond its initial reach. From its roots among skilled trades workers, labor has expanded to embrace public workers, professionals, women, minorities, immigrants, athletes, journalists - blue, white and pink collars. The solidarity that developed from epic battles in mines, mills and factories forged an alliance that is now known as the AFL-CIO.

Along the way, we helped enact laws that assert and protect the basic right of American workers to organize and bargain collectively, to work free of hazards. It was labor's righteous indignation that was the moral force behind universal public education and prohibitions against the ultimate abuse of children - child labor. Labor provided the vigor to enact Social Security, Medicare and the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

In the myopic jargon of today's politics, these essential programs are lumped together under the negative label of "entitlements." In the fashion of bean counters everywhere, the costs of these programs have become the focus, while the value they provide is virtually overlooked. Without universal public education, America would be a nation of illiterates. Without Social Security and Medicare, all but a privileged few elderly would be consigned to lives of poverty, illness or disease when they could no longer work. Without national standards for job safety, child labor, minimum wages and hours, our nation would return to the tyranny of workplaces dominated by cruelty and driven by greed. The value these programs have created for our nation and all its people extends far beyond any balance sheet. …

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