Unions and the Future of America's Middle Class

Sep 2, 2013

Today we celebrate the glorious history of the American labor movement. While unions have a storied past RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay wonders what the future holds.

The independent man, who stands atop the RI statehouse, may need to climb down and join a union.

Labor Day in Rhode Island has long been more than a summer’s end holiday. For decades, union leaders and their members have celebrated a movement that assimilated immigrants, fought vigorously for better pay and working conditions and was a fulcrum in the creation of a strong middle class.

Organized labor was crucial in the battle to end child labor in Rhode Island and to establish the 40-hour week. If you enjoy your weekends off, well, thank the unions. Unions were at the forefront of the civil rights revolution and other movements to give ordinary people dignity, health care and the full rights of citizenship, most recently in establishing same gender marriage in the Ocean State.

None of these social changes were easy, even if public opinion was often on the side of labor. One of today’s events honors the memory of striking textile mill workers who were killed during the Great Textile Strike of 1934 when the National Guard opened fire on them in Saylesville. Some of the gravestones in the Moshassuck Cemetery in Central Falls are marked to this day with bullet holes.

That strike at the height of the Depression also generated turmoil at factories in West Warwick and Woonsocket, where a teen aged bystander was killed. The union activism would become a catalyst for the creation of the modern Rhode Island Democratic Party, which in the 1930s ousted an ossified Republican machine that controlled state politics.

A wonderful way to reflect on labor history today would be a trip to the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket. This storehouse of union and French-Canadian working class culture is tucked into an ancient textile dyeing house in Market Square.  As is the case every Labor Day, admission to the museum is free today.

It’s nice to reminisce about the past, but it’s the future labor activists should be worried about. From Maine to California, the right to collectively bargain for better wages and benefits is under siege. Even in such onetime labor strongholds as Wisconsin and Michigan, the right to bargain has been whittled away in recent years, especially for public workers.

Which raises a tough question for labor leaders: Can organized labor survive as a movement dominated by public workers rather than those who work in the private sector? In Rhode Island, unions represent about 80,000 members, or roughly 17 percent of workers, which is the nation’s sixth highest rate. But only about 10 percent of the private sector workforce is unionized.

When the bulk of union members work for the taxpayer, they are targets of the politics of envy conservatives use to attack such highly union workforces as teachers, cops and firefighters.  Scott Molloy, professor of labor studies at the University of Rhode Island, says public workers have become too easy to single out for concessions, especially during the current recession.

As recently as the 1950s, when manufacturing flourished in our state, one-third of all workers carried union cards. Since that heyday, economic changes such as the global marketplace, the decline of American factories and a shift to a service economy have been devastating to organized labor.

Businesses that once negotiated with unions now fight organizing drives. Labor laws provide scant protection for companies that use questionable tactics to defeat unions, says Molloy. ``A business would rather pay a $10,000 for an unfair practice than risk paying a million dollars in wages to workers,’’ says Molloy.

A sad byproduct of the decline of unions has been rising income inequality across the U.S., with the working-class share of national income declining to the lowest level since the 1920s. The cliché once was that a rising economy lifts all boats. But even when the economic growth occurs these days, it seems to help mostly those in the yachts.

There are thousands of potential union workers across our state and nation. They are the folks who sweat over fryalators in fast-food restaurants, people who strip beds in hotels and those who log long hours at the check out lines in big box retailers. These workers arguably need union membership more than a college-educated teacher.

In Rhode Island, union leaders have been successful in recent years in reaching out to new members, notably the child care employees who work in state-subsidized day care. Yet without a renewed emphasis on organizing private sector workers, it’s hard to envision a labor movement that flourishes in the 21st Century.

Its time for public sector employees, who enjoy the fruits of union membership, to help organize their brethren in private industry.  And union leaders should heed the words of that legendary labor advocate,  Joe Hill, who famously said, ``Don’t mourn, organize.’’

Nothing less than the future of middle-class America is at stake.

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