Mar 1, 2011

Is demonizing unions fair?

With the ongoing protests in Wisconsin against budget cuts proposed by Republican Governor Scott Walker and a law that severely curtails the right of public employees to collectively bargain for better working conditions, the value of labor unions is once again an issue before the country. It is disturbing to see the decline in support for unions in America.

Those on the right generally oppose the labor union ideal, though for what reason exactly is difficult to find. Many root their arguments in the economic freedoms of business owners, whom Republicans argue should be able to run their business without interference from the government. However, there is also a long tradition of union support for the Democratic party, which has added a very political element to the GOP's opposition to labor unions.

I find it difficult to come up with a credible argument against the formation and existence of labor unions in the United States. Their very presence is just a continuation of the democratic, liberal values of the American revolution. The revolution was about asserting an individual's political independence from the tyrannical domination of a king. In the same manner, labor organizing into unions is asserting the individual's economic independence from the domination of wealth.

Labor unions give individual working people with little influence power to join together and speak with one voice to negotiate with the owners and operators of their respective industries. We, as citizens, vote on representatives to speak for us in legislatures. In the same manner working people should be allowed to vote for representatives to speak for them at the bargaining table where labor contracts are hammered out.

There is a stereotype in the United States of labor unions as a tool to negotiate for ridiculous concessions. Union members are portrayed as lazy, overpaid and coddled. This simply isn't true. Unions, using the collective power of labor, have led to the laws that shape our culture.

If not for unions, we would not have the 40 hour work week and the 8 hour work day. We would not have laws to prevent child labor. Our workplaces would be unsafe, and there would be no restitution for work missed while sick or injured, and workers could not miss days to care for injured or ill family members. There would be no minimum wage law. No one would make overtime pay. Laborers could be forced to live on property owned by their company, and required to buy products from a company store.

Remember the sacrifices that were made for labor rights - labor leaders endured violence and the threat of murder. Laws were changed to imprison union leaders. Many of them were incorrectly labeled communists and provocateurs and blacklisted. The struggle that gave individuals the right to form groups to negotiate for better conditions in their workplace was a direct descendent of the American Revolution and an ancestor to the American Civil Rights movement.

Unions have done for working people what democracy did for voting people. To abolish unions - or even curtail their rights - would be like appointing someone president for life or denying Americans the right to vote for their legislators. It would be like going back to Jim Crow laws and repealing the 19th Amendment. Opposing labor unions is - dare I say it - the very definition of being unamerican.

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