The Past and Future of American Workers

This excerpt from "Labor Rising" discusses the history that is directly related to the economic and political crises American workers face today and calls for a revitalized 21st-century labor movement.

| June 2012

  • Labor-Rising-Cover
    “Labor Rising” reveals the themes of today’s labor movement, asks of the readers how we might imagine a different future for all Americans, and demonstrates why the labor movement can, and must, be saved.
  • Occupy_everywhere
    The demands for government and corporate accountability to the “99 percent” of the people who are disenfranchised from the political system in the United States and around the world are being articulated clearly. And as unions help to swell the crowds and grow the movement, we see concrete hope for labor’s rise in the twenty-first century.

  • Labor-Rising-Cover
  • Occupy_everywhere

In the midst of America’s struggle for labor justice and social equality, Labor Rising (The New Press, 2012) is a powerful and timely contribution of pieces by top labor historians, social critics and activists, whose unique visions and interpretations of the labor movement show how the transforming economic changes of industrial capitalism run counter to labor’s vision. They state that the labor movement is not doomed, and that the mistreatment of America’s labor workers can be avoidable. The following excerpt is from the book’s introduction by Daniel Katz and Richard A. Greenwald. 

Last winter, when the nation’s eyes were on Wisconsin, many of the writers in this volume could not help but think about the past. Newly elected governor Scott Walker, together with a new majority of Republicans in the legislature, sought to strip public sector unions and labor workers of their legal rights to bargain collectively. Many of the nation’s labor leaders sat on the sidelines, while local union members and some unexpected allies began to rally, then march, then occupy the halls of state power. Thousands around the state, then around the country, poured into Madison as the national and world media finally took notice.

It has been a long time since there was that kind of attention paid to unions, let alone the daily coverage of workers spontaneously rising up. And what coverage there had been was dedicated to defeat, decline, and division. Thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers union. And for at least a generation now, it has been a bumpy downward spiral. What made Wisconsin so remarkable was that it seemed, at least for a moment, that tectonic plates were shifting. Labor, organized labor, was fighting back. Images of public employees occupying the statehouse brought back memories of the sitdown strikes of the early Congress of Industrial Organizations, the great CIO that ushered in a new day for American workers during the Great Depression. Students, farmers, community activists, and average citizens demanding accountability joined Wisconsin union members. One hundred thousand people chanted a refrain from the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization a decade earlier, “This is what democracy looks like!” Many of us thought that maybe Wisconsin was the start of another new day.

What the Seattle WTO demonstrations highlighted and we hope too for Wisconsin, though it is still too soon to tell, is a long tradition in American history where labor workers mobilized at the forefront of some of the most important, transformative social reforms in our history. Indeed, workers’ rights and their rights to organize have been critical for the health and growth of American democracy. When members of the Missouri Volunteers’ Turner Brigade marched to stop the plundering of the arsenal at Camp Jackson by secessionists on the eve of the Civil War, they carried a banner depicting a workman’s hammer smashing the shackles of slavery. When Mother Jones organized the Children’s Crusade in 1903, a march to abolish child labor, from Philadelphia to President Roosevelt’s home in Oyster Bay, New York, she struck a blow for the rights of all children, universal education, and workers’ health and safety. Garment workers traumatized by the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire won precedent-setting demands for statewide fire safety laws, protecting people of all classes. The rise of the CIO in the 1930s resulted in the largest union surge in American history and a slew of New Deal reforms, including Social Security, that helped set the stage for a vastly expanded American middle class who understood these “entitlements” as rights. And when Sleeping Car Porters president A. Philip Randolph organized the March on Washington Movement in 1941, he forced FDR to sign Executive Order 8802. That action barred employment discrimination in all government agencies and military contractors, opening up opportunities for generations of workers and professionals of every race to rise in wealth and power.

Now, organized labor as a whole did not always support these efforts. And sometimes, frankly, they were dragged kicking and screaming into the fray. But when unions did get behind an issue, they helped move the national agenda in important ways. They provided institutional, organizational, and monetary support, not to mention political heft, which helped these movements make history. One just has to remember that the 1963 March on Washington, where Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream” speech, was co-sponsored, supported and funded by the United Auto Workers, among other unions. In short, labor helped make America a better place to live and work for most Americans.

Social transformations in America have always moved forward in fits and starts, and unevenly. But efforts at reform have succeeded when working people gathered their resources and fought back during economic, political, and social crises. We believe that we are now living through one of these transformational moments.

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