Monday, February 22, 2010

American Workers Owe the Labor Movement

American Workers Owe the Labor Movement
By Gary L. Flowers
Executive Director & CEO
Black Leadership Forum, Inc.
February 21 – 28, 2009

Americans today are indebted to the labor movement of the United States of America. The American labor movement has transformed work life for all people—whether union members or not. How much money workers make; how many hours are worked; under what conditions; and whether collective bargaining is a part of the process is directly attributable to the struggle for workers’ rights. In particular, if not for the American labor movement, there would be no 8-hour workday; no weekend; no protections against child labor, and no protections against unsafe working conditions.

Prior to the modern American labor movement in the United States workers—both Black and White—were exploited for their labor. Whether the enslavement of Africans or exploitation of European workers the nation’s economy has rested on the backs of working people.

There are several meaningful events that impacted the effectiveness of American workers against management. In 1676, an Englishman named Nathaniel Bacon was upset with Virginia Governor Berkeley who denied Bacon a commission. Bacon organized African and European servants in Surry, Virginia to protest the power of the Governor and it became known as Bacon’s Rebellion. The union of Black and White workers sped up the institution of racial slavery in America.

In 1677, the state of New York prosecuted striking workers for the first time within the colonies. In 1773, Boston dockworkers rebelled against unfair taxes imposed by the British government while throwing tea into the Boston Harbor. The event became known as the Boston Tea Party (a far cry from today’s right-wing Tea Party.) In 1786, printers in Philadelphia organized against low wages. Five years late in 1791 Philadelphia carpenters successfully organized against the 10-hour workday.

However, two events in labor history became precedent-setting legal cases that would shape labor relations today. On May 1, 1866, 340,000 workers (65,000 in Chicago) protested across the United States for an 8-hour workday. On May 3, police killed 4 protestors. And a day later, 3,000 workers gathered in Chicago’s Haymarket Square where a deadly riot issued. The result was a giant step towards the 8-hour workday for all Americans now enjoy as a law.

In 1873, independent meat butchers in New Orleans, LA regularly dumped their discarded meat into the rivers and bayous surrounding New Orleans. The state responded with sanitation statutes outlawing the dumping by using the newly constituted 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Since its ratification in 1868, the 14th Amendment, enacted to protect the due process of former African American slaves, had not been challenged by a direct claim. In the Slaughter-House cases not only were workers ruled against, but the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th fell into disuse until the 1950’s when challenged and upheld in the Brown v. Board case.

There has been little major legislation to benefit workers since the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Accordingly, workers in unions have decreased. In the 1950’s, 55% of American workers were in a private union. Today, the percentage of privately unionized workers is 7%, due to manufacturing jobs being exported to cheaper labor markets abroad. However, 39% of public workers belong to a union.

The legislative answer may be the Employee Free Choice Act. The proposed legislation would allow American workers to unionize by a majority of workers without a secret ballot election. The bill would force outside mediation if an agreement between workers and management were not reached in several months.

As the Obama Administration and Congress consider a Jobs Bill one major stumbling block for the economy and workers is the increase of temporary and transient jobs that are difficult to organize.

America’s economy was built on free and exploited labor. Congress must now pass the Employees Free Choice Act to protect the American labor tradition of organized workers.

Gary L. Flowers
Executive Director & CEO
Black Leadership Forum, Inc.
633 Pennsylvania Ave
5th Floor
Washington, DC 20004
Office: 202.689.1965
Fax: 202.689.1954
Cell: 773.230.3554

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