Labor Day was just a few weeks ago. Most of us enjoy the holiday without a deep sense of what the day is about. We also enjoy other employment-related benefits that cost some folks their very lives.
There are many arguments people have against labor unions.
Unions are bad. Unions are corrupt. Unions protect bad workers. Unions prevent promoting the best workers. Unions raise the prices of products and services. Unions make political contributions and own politicians. Unions drive jobs to other countries. Unions interfere with management responsibilities. Unions interfere with the free market system.
There are many reasons to thank labor unions, for benefits most of us enjoy. I’m not advocating union membership, just recognizing the role of organized labor in our country’s development.
Labor unions in America fought hard for many of the benefits we take for granted. People died and went to jail for participating in protests and strikes. Unions helped to promote and support the passage of laws in the country that define working conditions, employment, benefits and protections against unsafe and discriminatory practices. There are laws and regulations that even protect workers in the event of termination, downsizing and the inability to perform based on health or illness. The rise against discrimination led to laws to promote fair employment and equal opportunity, not just at the federal level, but with states and local units of government. Businesses and organizations picked up on the need to promote and offer benefits beyond those required by law, because they saw the need for incentives to attract and retain quality workers. Employers compete for employees, and many go far beyond these benefits to attract and keep talent.
The following are now part of American employment:
- Eight hour work days, holidays, overtime pay
- Child labor laws
- Unsafe work practices
- Workers compensation
- Fair pay for equal work
- Redress for discriminatory actions
- Health insurance and pensions
- Sick leave and paid time off
- Reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities
The efforts of organized labor contributed to the development of Social Security and Medicare, programs for senior citizens and those with disabilities, by providing a safety net for those who worked and contributed to the economy, and their survivors. Social Security and Medicare provided resources to keep millions out of poverty, but with the rising costs of medical care, more Americans lack the financial ability to pay for long-term care and catastrophic illness.
There are those who believe these benefits and employment protections are over-reaching, unfair to business, and interfere with a free market economy and pure capitalism. Further, that Social Security and Medicare are the cause of our federal debt problems, and are really socialism. Mind you, these are often the same folks who are fine with government subsidies of lucrative industries and farm-based price supports and market protections. One person’s socialism is another’s bank deposit.
America flourished as the middle class grew, as the gap between the robber-barons and the proletariat closed. Programs like Social Security, Medicare and agricultural supports for family farmers, provided economic stability and put that money back into the economy. As workers prospered, America prospered.
Those who complain about too much government often cherry-pick the facts to suit their argument. Government regulation and government financial support are often completely different animals. Sometimes government regulation, and even financial support, serve to level the playing field, and by that very nature, manipulate the “market.” Under unregulated markets, monopolies development, insider trading happens and discrimination occurs. There is nothing more evil and vexing than greed.
Conservative-mind folks often are against unions. Not always, but conservative interests are more likely to support political candidates who are unfavorable to organized labor. In our country there are diverse interests and their views on organized labor are split.
There are those that would like to see some of those bullet points above go away or less restrictive to business. Some see turning back some of those benefits to be a welcome shift of political power. The old saying, “What’s good for GM, is good for America,” is not always true, but it is a balance. What is good for GM shareholders is not always good for company workers, and vice versa. However, GM is a lot of jobs, and the economic success of the company is good for workers.
America is a melting pot of many things. It is also a constantly shifting scale, a balancing act between competing interests.
Without the hard-won benefits that labor achieved, this would be a very different America, and one that might not be as prosperous as it is today.
America is struggling with it’s ideals, one of our country’s greatest assets. The late Senator John McCain knew that American’s ideals served to set the country apart from every other country in history. Those ideals, and values, were not just written on a piece of paper, they were forged with blood and sweat, courage and sacrifice.
The American Dream grew out of the success of the middle class, created by the working hands and commitment of those who pulled themselves up, including millions of small businesses that grew and prospered. We know the value of success and sacrifice, and the sweet taste of freedom. So does the rest of the world. It is not our greed or brutality that is envied, it is our compassion and sense of justice.
The working class hero is not a myth, it is the spirit of Americans who sacrificed, and used their prosperity to create trails for others, who used their own sweat and toil to ascend towards their dreams.