If legendary labor activist Joe Hill were alive today — and some contend that he is — he would have plenty to say about the state of the American worker. And the country, if it listened, would have plenty to learn.
Hill, who was executed in Utah 100 years ago this month, was an unapologetically radical union organizer whose rough-hewn songs and poems matched the brutal working conditions endured by tens of millions of Americans in the early 20th century. While his lyrics might at first sound anachronistic to contemporary audiences, their underlying spirit speaks directly to the experiences of far too many in our often unforgiving 21st century economy.
“Would you have freedom from wage slavery… Would you from mis’ry and hunger be free,” from Hill’s 1913 anthem “There Is Power in a Union,” could easily have been inspired by the thousands of truck drivers who haul goods to and from the nation’s largest port in Los Angeles.
In 1936, during the throes of the Great Depression, FDR addressed a deeply divided and economically insecure nation on the eve of Labor Day:
“There are those who fail to read both the signs of the times and American history. They would try to refuse the worker any effective power to bargain collectively, to earn a decent livelihood and to acquire security. It is those short-sighted ones, not labor, who threaten this country with that class dissension which in other countries has led to dictatorship and the establishment of fear and hatred as the dominant emotions in human life.”
The parallels to what’s happening today are remarkable.
While the circumstances differ from now, the insecurity so many felt in 1936 is as strong as it was then. It exists across sectors. It exists regardless of geography. It exists because the wealthy few have reaped the rewards of our labor without sharing the prosperity.
Why are so many Americans wary of labor unions? Unions are, after all, good for everyone who works for a living. In occupations with a high rate of unionization all the workers get paid more, even employees who aren’t in a union. As rates of unionization have fallen, so has compensation. One might expect unions to be all the rage with anyone who ever put in a hard day’s work. But this is not always the case, particularly in the United States.
Americans have WEIRD attitudes towards unions – as in, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. The Canadian behavioralists who coined this acronym were interested in how sweeping generalizations about human psychology and economic behavior might be incorrect if they were based on only one kind of (WEIRD) people, and reviewed a number of cross-cultural studies to make their point. To scholars at the University of British Columbia,
Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice, by Moshe Z. Marvit and Richard D. Kahlenberg, was released last year to critical and academic acclaim but not nearly enough attention. The book, whose authors are both fellows at the progressive think tank the Century Foundation, lays out a simple, brilliant idea: to amend the Civil Rights Act so that it prohibits discriminating against workers for attempting to organize a union.
We recently had a chance to pick the authors’ brains about the inspiration for the book, how the legislation would work and why this is an idea whose time has come.
Feldner-Shaw: For those who haven’t heard about it, can you briefly describe the premise or thesis of the book?
Marvit and Kahlenberg: As the title suggests, the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right makes the argument that labor activities are a civil right and should be treated as such by our laws.
It’s not coincidental that at this very moment both the labor and racial justice movements stand at a crossroads in our nation’s consciousness. The people who fight to undo worker’s rights and assault unions are often the very same folks who craft laws and policies that allowed Trayvon Martin’s killer to walk free, that disenfranchise black voters and expand the use of racial profiling. Moreover, the public rhetoric of post-racialism is closely tied to the false promise of rampant corporate profiteering that casts the labor movement as an irrelevant “special interest.”
In 2013 the landscape of the national labor movement could charitably be described as “receding.” Last year the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a national union membership rate of 11.3 percent — down from 11.8 percent in 2011.The ever-declining number of union members in 2012 was 14.4 million, while in 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available,