In the wake of labor unrest in states throughout the mideast and the midwest, I was particularly shaken by Rob Olson’s Feb. 24 column titled “Useless Unions,” which lambasted public service unions, blamed state workers for budget shortfalls and concluded by outrageously calling for the legal abolishment of public sector unions.
A single, dangerous phrase, however, made my jaw drop: “Unions never did anything for me.”
This couldn’t be further from the truth. With wealth inequality in the United States at its highest levels since the Great Depression, a tenth of the nation unemployed and the incomes of the bottom 80 percent of Americans on the decline, it is imperative that this myth be dispelled.
Here are a few things unions have done for you:
The weekend. What you and I look forward to every second of the week was actually brought to you by… unions! The idea of the weekend didn’t exist until the 1870s, when labor organizers across the country began calling for workers to go on strike until their right to a shorter workweek was acknowledged.
The 8-hour workday. From the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th, unions pressured factory and farm owners to limit the daily work requirement of their laborers to 8 hours per day. Amazingly, it wasn’t until the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 that employers were barred from forcing workers to work 14 to 16 hour shifts with no overtime pay. For over a century, working men and women were killed, thrown in jail and tortured for protesting their right to a fair working day. It is on their backs that we are able to enjoy this right today.
The legal end of child slavery. In 1910, 2 million children under the age of 15 were employed in the US, many forcefully, in some of the most backbreaking, dangerous industries in the nation. Children under the age 16 were routinely pulled out of school and forced into coal mines, cotton plantations and assembly lines. They were often paid just a tenth of the wages of their adult coworkers. While the U.S. Supreme Court struck down regulations on child labor in 1918, unions fought relentlessly for the rights of child workers until FDR signed the above-mentioned Fair Labor Standards Act into law 20 years later.
The minimum wage. If you are employed in the State of California (as I am), your employer pays you at least (but probably not much more than) $8 an hour in exchange for your labor. Now, if you are fortunate enough to work full-time on the minimum wage, you’ll still only rake in $16,640 in a year’s worth of work, but that’s better than it used to be. It wasn’t until the 1930s that unions won the first battle for minimum wage laws in the United States (which set the bar at a miserably low 25 cents an hour).
Oh, and without unions, we probably wouldn’t have Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Unemployment Insurance, SSI, Old Age Benefits, Pensions, Healthcare, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Occupational Safety and Health, etc.
Ah, but maybe Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (now joined by Republican governors and legislators across the country, including in our own state) is right. Maybe removing public employees’ rights to collectively bargain is a fiscally responsible move that is necessary to balance state budgets and quench the thirst of these bloodsucking union thugs that want to steal your money and bankrupt your government.
After all, when was the last time that a teacher, fireman, policeman, street sweeper, garbage man or bus driver did anything for you?
Maybe we should stand with Gov. Walker to strike down working peoples’ rights to collectively bargain in order to protect the God-given rights of corporations to make record profits, fire thousands of workers, slash wages, contribute unlimited amounts to political campaigns, spark crippling economic crises that drown tens of millions of American working people in underwater mortgages, spew toxic waste into the air and water and get bailed-out by the very people they screwed over in the first place!
Or, maybe not.
Anyway, do you have plans this weekend? Thank a union.
ERIC LEE is a junior political science major.