During the post World War II era 53 years ago, a pro-business Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act in an effort to slow, if not stop, the growth of the American labor movement. The fondest dreams of its corporate sponsors are being realized today.
John L. Lewis, the president of the United Mine Workers, was prophetic when he remarked following passage of the legislation:
“This Act was passed to oppress labor, to make difficult its current enterprises for collective bargaining, to make more difficult the securing of new members for this labor movement, without which our movement will become so possessed of inertia that there is no security for its existence—.” As Lewis predicted, union members have fallen to less than 10 percent of the workers in the private economy today — the lowest in 60 years and far below the percentage of organized workers in comparable western democracies.
As we approach Labor Day 2000, there is a critical need for the labor movement and progressives to once again pick up the battle against the restrictive anti-labor provisions of Taft-Hartley. There is a need to adopt labor laws which end the tilt toward employers and provide a fair opportunity for workers to organize without intimidation. Today, nearly one out of every ten workers involved in union organizing drives is fired by employers who wage a campaign of fear, threats and slick propaganda to keep workers from exercising a genuinely free choice.
Any reform of the labor laws should include a provision that would impose treble damages against employers who unfairly fire employees because of their efforts to organize unions. The current law is essentially a meaningless deterrent as it relates to such incidents. It calls only for reinstatement with back pay, minus earnings of fired workers, if you can afford a lawyer to win your case.
The need for fair labor laws goes beyond the interests of the unions, themselves. As union membership falls so do the wages of all working people, union and non-union alike. This is particularly true for low-wage workers in the United States which historically have earned less than their counterparts in advanced European economies. The typical low wage worker in Europe earns 44 percent more than in the United States One in five children exist at a poverty level in the United States, more than twice the rate of child poverty in western Europe. More than a fourth of Hispanic and African-American children in the United States live in poverty.
Much is made of the increase in income of married middle-class couples, but a significant part of this increase comes from growth in family work hours which are up 182 hours to 3,600 hours — nearly 4.5 extra full-time weeks a year since 1989. And much of the “extra” earnings of two-worker families is offset by increases in costs for child-care, transportation and related items.
We spend more on health care than any other nation in the world, but a poorly regulated, corporate-dominated health care system eliminates choice, erodes care and inflates administrative costs while boosting profits and executive compensation. Yet, more than 45 million Americans have no health insurance. Eighty-percent of these uninsured are working families and their dependents. Universal health care, as well as enactment of fair labor laws, should be a priority on the labor agenda.
Labor Day 2000 should also mark a new resolve to end abuse of trade by corporations under the guise of “free trade.” Free trade sloganeering has been a means to hide corporate efforts to evade labor and environmental standards and, with the support of dictatorial regimes, to exploit workers throughout the world.
Trade policies should be based on “pulling standards” up around the world, not on “pulling down” our standards. Labor, joined by environmentalists and human rights advocates, should make clear the differences between the corporate managed trade and what is truly “fair trade” that provides decent protections for workers and the environment.
Labor Day 2000 should be a moment for the nation to focus new emphasis and new action on the rights of the nation’s workers — the real strength of our economy.