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OP-ED | Dr. King’s Dream Also Included Workers’ Rights

by Lori Pelletier | Aug 30, 2013 2:34pm
(3) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Equality, Labor, Opinion

The Labor Day weekend is upon us. As we pause on Monday to remember how much work we have done over the past year, we are reminded that forces other than our own dedication and commitment to getting the job done impact our abilities to earn the pay, benefits, and respect we deserve. As the economy on Main Street continues its return to pre-2008 levels, we are reminded that those modern-day robber barons on Wall Street took very much and suffered not at all.

Non-union workers today earn less than they did in 1963 when you account for inflation. When Dr. King stood on the steps to talk about a dream, it was a dream for workers’ rights, too. He led the charge, along with A. Philip Randolph of the AFL-CIO and Walter Reuther of the UAW, to raise the minimum wage to $2 an hour. In today’s dollars that would be well above $15 an hour

So it’s more than a bit ironic that on Aug. 29, 2013, hundreds of people, community activists, and legislative leaders stood with striking fast food workers in Hartford to embrace their demand for $15 per hour and the right to improve their lives by unionizing.

In 1963 the Dow Industrial sat at 700; today over 15,000, yet many still are trying to attain what they marched for in 1963. What went drastically wrong? Three things: greed, greed, and more greed. Today CEOs make 354 times what their average worker makes. In real dollars, that means the CEOs of S&P 500 Index companies earned $12.3 million last year, while the average rank-and-file worker earned $34,645.

Samuel Gompers, founding father of the American Federation of Labor, said it well when he observed, “The man who has millions will want everything he can lay his hands on and then raise his voice against the poor devil who wants 10 cents more a day.”

Middle class America is under attack, and the only line of defense remaining is a strong and vibrant labor movement. It’s time to remember what labor unions have done for us. From the weekend to sick leave, child labor laws and safer working conditions, unions will always stand up for the rights of working people. Is it any wonder corporations and plutocrats like the Koch Brothers are spending billions to destroy the labor movement?

Union workers have rights no other worker has. They have the right to negotiate fair wages, workplace rules, health and safety, and other benefits. When workers are able to demand a decent standard of living, it not only helps them, but it also helps the community. Unlike corporate CEOs, middle class Americans spend their money, and the more money they make the more money will end up in the community instead of in offshore accounts or villas in Europe.

Our elected leaders are concerned with the economy and budgets, and rightfully so. Yet many of them miss that very simple link between a strong economy and a strong labor movement. Our capitalist system is consumer driven: bottom up, not trickle down. The more consumers spend, the faster the wheels turn the economic engine. When workers feel secure, and have disposable income, the closer we come to a truly virtuous economy where Main Street can thrive once again.

Working men and women still keep this country going. Whether they serve soup and sandwiches, or serve in the military, or work to protect our streets, they are the catalyst for a strong economy. So next time you think workers should take less, I’ll argue workers should earn more, because the more they earn the faster and fairer the economy grows. That makes everyone happy. (Well, maybe not the Wall Street speculators and gangster CEOs.)

So on this Labor Day thank some workers, because they are truly the engine that keeps our country running. And remember, too, that labor unions remain the single best anti-poverty, pro-middle class tool for working people.

Happy Labor Day.

Lori Pelletier is Secretary-Treasurer of the CT AFL-CIO.

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(3) Comments

posted by: ABC | September 2, 2013  1:12pm

What is left of the CT. unionized workforce of yore gave up on fighting for better working conditions a long time ago.  Why?  Because over time they GAINED the better working conditions they fought for 50 years.  And they didn’t just gain better working conditions but also a bigger piece of the profit pie via stock ownership plans in the companies they work for.  Prior to 1970, very few workers owned any equity in their own companies.  With the advent of 401ks and company stock plans, the wealth was being shared. Mission acomplished! 

But as is human nature, these organizations (yes, one can call them corporations) began to over-reach, and actually did harm to their own members by discouraging ambition, hard work, and getting ahead.  Wisely, workers began to reject unionization. The true-blue American worker just wanted the playing field to be level - and not unequal, even if it was tilting towards them!

Unions were no longer part of the solution but part of a terrible new problem (See: Decline of the Big 3, and later Detroit).

But even though their membership % within private sector firms shrank close to single digits, the unions didn’t just pack up and go away.  After all AFL-CIO, Teamsters, AFT, etc. are just as much bottom-line corporations as are the private companies that they like to rail against. 

So where did the unions go when the private sector largely retired them?  Like any self-dealing corporation, instead they sought out new markets.  Unfortunately, the new market they chose was the public sector.  They found it amazingly easy to create a corrupt bargain with politicians to trade political support for hidden benefits.  And today we have all of these underfunded benefit plans because politcians made promises to the unions and hid them from the taxpayers.  So, the unions new business model?  Exploit the poor disorganized taxpayer (middle class, I might add)! 

So today these public sector unions fight to preserve their ill-gotten, gold-plated work rules, and health and retirement packages.  How ironic it is that the cost of these corrupt bargains are to be to be borne by all the private sector middle class workers who had once been the backbone of the union movement.  (The price for abandoning the movement?)

When 1 special, privileged citizen out of 50 in CT. gets to retire 20 years earlier than everyone else, receive defined benefits without any investment risk, receive free healthcare for themselves and their families, simply have to show up for work to get a raise, and get no-layoff guarantees, - its tough to make the case that other people are “greedy”.

posted by: ASTANVET | September 3, 2013  9:02am

Lori - philisophically, what is greed?  I’ll let Milton Friedman answer that… “Of course, none of us are greedy, it’s only the other fellow who’s greedy. The world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests. The great achievements of civilization have not come from government bureaus. Einstein didn’t construct his theory under order from a bureaucrat. Henry Ford didn’t revolutionize the automobile industry that way. In the only cases in which the masses have escaped from the kind of grinding poverty you’re talking about, the only cases in recorded history, are where they have had capitalism and largely free trade. If you want to know where the masses are worse off, worst off, it’s exactly in the kinds of societies that depart from that. So that the record of history is absolutely crystal clear, that there is no alternative way so far discovered of improving the lot of the ordinary people that can hold a candle to the productive activities that are unleashed by the free-enterprise system.” and “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.” Self interest is not a bad thing, what is bad is when corporatists are able to purchase leverage through corrupt politicians - that is why the unions make more than non-union workers.  That is why we have many of the horrible conditions and the unrealized potential that Dr. King spoke of.  Government is just plain bad for people because it provides the artificial ceiling for your potential.  Anyone who relies on government to solve their problems is engaging in activity that will mimik theft by taking from one to give to another.  Plain and simple.

posted by: justsayin | September 3, 2013  9:51am

Using MLK in the title to promote your agenda, what a stretch? Lori you could not be more wrong in your thinking. What we need is less union, less government and more accountability.