The perilous state of workers in America

Washington (PAI) – Traditionally, the nation pauses on Labor Day to honor workers with parades, speeches, cookouts and campaigning.  This Labor Day 2012 demands a lot more.

That’s because the state of workers in the U.S. is at one of its most perilous points in decades.

Consider the following pieces of evidence:

· Fewer than 8 percent of private-sector workers are union members, along with fewer than one in eight workers overall.  Lack of density harms all workers, union and non-union.

By their bargaining power, united, unionists raise their own wages, living standards and working conditions.  If density is high enough, non-union firms must match – or come close to matching – those increases.  That raises living standards and purchasing power for everybody.

But density is not high enough.  For the last 30 years, private employers, aided and abetted by government policies, have waged a relentless war to destroy unions.  After the 2010 election, that war spread to the public sector.  The result can be seen in workers’ wages and standards of living: Flat or declining ever since 1980.

  • · Workers have always been able to fight back by marshaling their troops politically.  They still can.  But their voices are being drowned in the tsunami of corporate, special interest and billionaire cash inundating our political system.  When out-of-state megamillionaires can throw tens of millions of dollars into one election alone – the gubernatorial recall fight in Wisconsin – labor and its legions are outmatched.

Take Wisconsin and repeat it nationwide and you have a recipe for disaster for workers and their rights to collectively bargain, to organize, to decent wages.

  • · Federal policies aid and abet the power of multi-national corporations through so-called “trade treaties” which give those firms unlimited rights to exploit low-paid unprotected workers overseas, while having U.S. taxpayers – workers – subsidize the export of their own jobs.  And it doesn’t matter which party is occupying the Oval Office.

Republican presidents pushed NAFTA and CAFTA, Democratic presidents pushed NAFTA and, now, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, along with “free trade” treaties with Colombia, Korea, Peru and Panama.

Legislation to yank the U.S. tax subsidies for moving jobs overseas died in the Democratic-run Senate – due to a GOP filibuster – and never even got a hearing in the GOP-run House.  Legislative inaction will only encourage offshoring and outsourcing.

  • · There are many people – too many – who are either ideologically blinded, willfully unknowing, or both, about the condition of U.S. workers.  They know their fellow citizens are struggling, but they figure that either (a) “It’s your fault” or (b) “So what?  I got mine.  Fend for yourself.”  And they back policies and politicians designed to further crush fellow citizens, not realizing that when others are dragged down, they fall, too.
  • · The unavowed aim of the anti-worker forces is to convert the U.S. into the 310-million-person equivalent of what used to be called a Third World nation, where a small oligarchy of the ultra-rich rules dictatorially over a large mass of serfs and slaves.


There is no one answer to reversing the bleak outlook that faces U.S. workers on this Labor Day.  Electing pro-worker officials is only a part of the solution.  Holding officials accountable to our goals, not just their agenda, is another section of the solution.  But how can you do that when one major party, the Democrats, takes workers for granted, and the other, the Republicans, wants to destroy workers and the middle class?   It’s a problem the labor movement has yet to solve.

Mass mobilization, as in the 1930s, helps.  But it must go beyond mass mobilization of union members and their families.  Attracting 10,000 people to a park in Philadelphia is fine.  Attracting 10 million to a mass movement means something.


And people need one unified cause to rally around, expressed in plain and simple terms that even the uninformed and uninterested can understand.

Labor must pick that one cause and stick to it, on behalf of all workers.  Be it workers’ rights, or economic justice, or fairness on the job, or a decent standard of living, or whatever, pick one theme, emphasize it, keep emphasizing it and either relate every other issue and idea to that theme or toss it over the side as a distraction.

As the old radio phrase goes: “Keep it simple, stupid!”   And keep pounding away at that one theme, forever.

Only by picking one cause to campaign for, by making it a litmus test for political support, and pushing it not just through the election but beyond – far beyond – will labor be able to start to reverse the perilous state of working America. 

Labor rarely has done that since the 1930s.  This Labor Day is the time to start.

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