Many are saying that the battle in Wisconsin is, at long last, shedding some much needed light on the critical role unions play in our economy and in the lives of real working people. If that’s actually so, I’d say it’s high time.
A few recent insights on the subject that are well worth taking to heart. First, from Kevin Drum, writing in Mother Jones:
Of course unions have pathologies. Every big human institution does. And anyone who thinks they’re on the wrong side of an issue should fight it out with them. But unions are also the only large-scale movement left in America that persistently acts as a countervailing power against corporate power. They’re the only large-scale movement left that persistently acts in the economic interests of the middle class.
Robert Reich, who blogged two years ago on the reasons unions are so central to the health of our economy:
The American middle class isn’t looking for a bailout or a handout. Most people just want a chance to share in the success of the companies they help to prosper. Making it easier for all Americans to form unions would give the middle class the bargaining power it needs for better wages and benefits. And a strong and prosperous middle class is necessary if our economy is to succeed.
Mik Moore, on unions and the 21st century Jewish community:
Warren Jacobson is the president of the Madison chapter of the Zionist Organization of America. He is middle class. Conservative. Mid-Western. And for 18 years, a union member and government worker.
In 2010, he voted for Scott Walker. But when asked by a JTA reporter if he supported the Governor’s effort to effectively neuter the state government employees’ union, he said no. He had experienced anti-Semitism and discrimination. Unions might not be perfect, he acknowledged, but:
“I want someone supporting me.”
His statement is a powerful distillation of why unions remain vital. Without a union, each worker is on his or her own. They must fend for themselves. And more often than not, they will lose…
We are fooling ourselves if we think unions are no longer important to maintaining and growing the large Jewish middle class. They are. Jacobson is more typical than we realize.
Almost exactly a century ago, on March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory went up in flames, killing 146 people, mostly immigrant women workers. The management had locked exit doors and stairwells to prevent workers from leaving early. As a result, workers trying to escape the fire were forced to jump from as high as the tenth floor, or simply to wait and smolder to death.
At a gathering in the Metropolitan Opera House a few days after the fire, labor organizer Rose Schneiderman rallied the crowd with the following words:
“Every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us… I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves.”
Schneiderman understood that more was at stake in the days following the catastrophe than fire safety regulations. Instead, she argued that only a strong union movement would guarantee workers a safe and dignified workplace in the long run…
Governor Walker and his billionaire supporters are on the verge of destroying the labor movement in America. If that happens, workers will lose most negotiating power, wages will fall, and many more of us will lose our health insurance and other benefits. If Rose Schneiderman were here today, she would tell us, “It’s up to us to save ourselves.”