Sep 5, 2011

This Labor Day, As Unions Face Historic Attacks, It's Time to Stand Together

Paul Robeson with shipyard workers in Oakland, 1942
Photo Credit: NARA via pingnews

Americans' labor product, hard work, made this country grow. Securing the liberty to produce and sell our labor by organizing and freely associating with our fellows made our country grow. Now, labor is under attack ... again, in a manner that would have made 20-century fascists proud.

By Sarah Jaffe

If there was ever a year to think about the meaning of Labor Day, this would be it.

Organized labor has rocketed to the forefront of America's political consciousness, with conservative governors attacking the right to form a union, historic strikes, and a few unexpected victories along the way.

Woody Guthrie
And while the right attacks unions and labor organizes to fight back, unemployment remains high, jobs tenuous, wages depressed and the economy slumping. No new jobs were created in August—that's right, none. The overall unemployment rate held steady, but the labor department also revised downward its jobs growth numbers for the previous two months, so the economy has actually been worse than we thought for most of the summer. Dean Baker also points out that the number of people underemployed, or “involuntarily working part-time jumped up by 430,000, to 8.8 million.”

Continued high unemployment leaves even workers who have jobs feeling desperate, and gives the bosses the upper hand to demand more work, lower wages, and givebacks from employees, while austerity politics has led to public sector layoffs across the country.

As Mike Konczal notes, “Average weekly earnings and average weekly hours both dropped slightly. We need these numbers to be taking off, not holding steady or declining. So the economy isn’t working even for those with a job.”

He continues:
Meanwhile, the average duration of unemployment has dropped while the median has increased. It’s too early to tell, but that’s a troubling sign with weak job growth — it means that we are likely seeing more and more unemployed people simply dropping out of the labor force instead of finding a job. This will continue to make the unemployment rate a less important indicator than the employment-to-population ratio.
The picture is desperate and it's not getting any better. Many Labor Day barbecues this year will be overshadowed by grim economic realities. Many people are experiencing the pressure of being out of work or living in fear that their jobs will evaporate, having to put in longer hours or take a job that pays less, or being forced to take cuts in pensions or health benefits.

There is Power in a Union

Yet, this year has been exciting as well. While the economic picture remains bad, working people thrilled to the sight of Wisconsin's public workers, teachers and progressives occupying the capitol building in protest at Governor Scott Walker's attempt to take away union's rights to collective bargaining. As firefighters marched in solidarity and national labor leaders and rock stars descended on the city, Americans saw a mass, spontaneous pro-labor action that reminded us all of the real power of collective action.

Matt Stoller wrote at the time:
Striking just isn’t in the collective memory of the American public anymore. This kind of highly politicized hybrid political protest/strike walks like an Egyptian these days, which is why Egyptians were sending Wisconsinites pizza and Madison protesters were holding signs lauding teachers, workers, and the new Egyptian flag. In fact, Madison may represent a new kind of American labor model, the melding of old school unions, Howard Dean-style internet-based organizing, Anonymous-style serious pranking, and social media reporting on protests and policy. There’s an anti-bailout class-based fervor here as well, with a simmering anger at Wall Street as subtext. It’s headless and global, though there is leadership. The most powerful moment so far in the Wisconsin conflict didn’t come from the actions of a labor leader, but from a prank call by alt-weekly 'Buffalo Beast' editor Ian Murphy, who pretended to be billionaire American oligarch David Koch and had a frank 20 minute conversation with Governor Scott Walker. Murphy originally wanted to pose as Hosni Mubarak, but couldn’t pull off the accent.
See Sarah Jaffe.

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