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.
For the past seven days America has watched a government shutdown unfold, courtesy of the Tea Party-controlled House of Representatives – a moment of political vaudeville more worthy of the description “circus” than “theater.” Beginning this week, however, we may be in for the start of a truly Grand Guignol event befitting the Halloween season.
That’s because the Supreme Court will hear several key labor cases this term, along with yet another plea from billionaires to be allowed to purchase a larger share of the electoral process. Just as the shutdown has battered the economy and harmed countless Americans through its curtailment of Headstart programs, the closing of federal parks and suspension of government health programs, so could damage be done to the national welfare by a handful of pro-business decisions by the high court. If the present conservative majority continues to vote within its ideological groove,
Chances are you’ve heard a union member or leader called one of these things (and in all likelihood, more than once), and it made your blood boil. The unfortunate truth is that misconceptions, stereotypes and all-out lies seem to be dominating the public discussion and perception of labor unions, even among some progressives. We in the labor movement know that unions stand for the working class as the sole and vital counterbalance to corporate greed and excess…but no one else seems to have gotten the memo.
That disconnect—between what we actually do and what others think we do—is the impetus behind yesterday’s action session at the AFL-CIO Convention, entitled “10 Ways to Change How People See Unions.” Featuring AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Elizabeth Shuler, AFSCME’s Chris Policano and Brandon Weber of Upworthy’s Workonomics, this exciting session focused on reintroducing unions to America by focusing on what we actually do every day for working families.
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,
Last Saturday’s commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington spotlighted the power of grassroots activism. But it was no exercise in nostalgia. Activists are pushing for social change across the nation, and I discuss dozens of these campaigns in my new book, The Activist’s Handbook, Second Edition: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, officially released today by UC Press. The book thoroughly revises and updates the 1996 edition, which the late Howard Zinn praised as “enormously valuable for anyone interested in social change.” The new edition adds my analysis of the strategies used by social movements around immigration reform, gay and lesbian rights, the Keystone XL Pipeline, school “reform” and other campaigns that really took off in the past decade.
While some believe the past 15 years have weakened the power of grassroots activism against big moneyed interests, I disagree. In fact, in writing the new book I realized that activism has increased since the original edition,