“What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway. The good you do today can be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.”
— Dr. Kent M. Keith
The idea that workers should be free and allowed to form unions to bargain collectively with their bosses is an old one. It was implied by the earliest principles of democracy. It wasn’t enough to just have human dignity when confronting their kings, human dignity should belong to workers when confronting their bosses.
The great emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, didn’t just fight to release slave laborers from their bondage. He supported the creation of labor unions, and called for a national holiday to celebrate their efforts. But the establishment of that official holiday didn’t happen until 1894. When President Franklin Roosevelt guaranteed the right to organize in 1935, union membership took off like a rocket –reaching membership levels of over 36% of the workforce by mid-century. And those union members, armed with new political strength, created a system of justice for working families that we still enjoy today.
What, pray tell, did these labor warriors win for us living today in the 21st century?
Well – weekend time off, eight hour work days, overtime pay, paid vacations, paid holidays, paid sick leave, paid break time, military leave, jury duty leave, employer health and life insurance coverage and pensions. When union workers won these rights, non-union workplaces soon followed suit, in order to retain quality workers.
At the same time, they fought and won struggles to protect all workers – like Social Security, Medicare, child labor laws, unemployment and workers’ compensation plans, health and safety rules, civil rights protections and sexual harassment and equal pay protections for women.
But in recent decades, the proliferation of bad trade laws, corporate union-busting consulting businesses, and a shift to a pro-corporate congress and presidency, has led to a significant drop in union membership among workers – and with it, the loss of workers’ share of the nation’s wealth, and a weakened ability to bargain it back.
The numbers are shocking. For comparison, in 1965, when baby boomers were just beginning to enter the workforce, the CEO-to-worker pay ratio was 20-to-1. Today, millennials live in an America where the CEO-to-worker pay ratio has reached 278-to-1. That should shock ordinary middle class Americans. But the current American president thinks this is a wonderful development – a gigantic leap in the right direction.
In 2014, against the wishes of Mayor Tom Henry, a Republican supermajority on the City Council rescinded 40 years of collective bargaining rights for municipal workers in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Why? Well, according to these council members, it just seemed like “a good return to effective business practices.”
As we celebrate another U.S. Labor Day holiday, middle class America would do well to follow the advice of the philosopher, Dr. Kent Keith – keep on building a better future. Regardless of how grim it may seem at the time, keep on building.