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Does labor history matter?

Fri, Sep 7, 2012

I regularly conduct education programs for teachers, union members and others about labor history, organizing and the role of unions in society. It has become very clear to me that most Americans, including many union members, know very little about labor history; much of what they have learned has been distorted to discredit unions. One of my first exercises is to ask class participants to tell me something about Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Bill Gates and other prominent businessmen.

Usually most of the participants, whether they are college faculty members or union apprentices just out of high school, can tell me something about these people. But, when I ask them to identify A. Phillip Randolph, Eugene Debs, Samuel Gompers, Richard Trumka, George Meany, Cesar Chavez and others, most of them are stumped except for one famous union leader. Everyone seems to know Jimmy Hoffa – not the current president of the Teamsters Union but his corrupt father who spent years in prison and disappeared in an apparent mob murder. Obviously unions need to get their story out to the public and to their own members.

The labor movement has been under a relentless assault by determined and well-financed political enemies. A whole industry backed by the National Manufacturing Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wealthy businessmen such as the Koch broth-ers and others promotes the anti-union agenda. They have financed conservative groups Americans For Prosperity, America Crossroads, the National Right To Work Committee, American Legislative Exchange Council, dozens of right wing think tanks and others to carry out their campaign against unions.

History shapes how people think about the present, and public opinion is very important for any group seeking to influence society. If unions are going to survive and thrive they need to tell their story. Unions have a great story to tell!

Unions have been instrumental in many economic gains enjoyed by working class and lower middle class Americans today. Unions successfully fought for Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation, minimum wage, the 40-hour week, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and numerous other programs.

Unions also played a key role in the struggle for social justice. The labor movement supported the creation of a free, universal education system, mandatory school attendance and laws against child labor. Prior to the Civil War, trade union activists were outspoken in their opposition to slavery. After the war, the National Labor Union and later the Knights of Labor welcomed African-Americans into their ranks. In 1869, the National Labor Union (NLU) adopted a resolution urging “our colored fellow members to form organizations in all legitimate ways, and send delegates from every state in the union to the next congress.”

While some unions had practiced racial discrimination in the past, many others, especially the industrial unions, included all workers regardless of race. In the early 20th century, International Workers of the World and other radical unions actively recruited all races. So did the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO), signing up tens of thousands of African-Americans during the Great Depression.

In 1941, A. Phillip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood Sleeping Car Porters’ Union, was instrumental in planning a mass protest in Washington D.C. against job discrimination in war industries and segregation in the armed forces. The protest was cancelled when President Roosevelt issued an Executive Order banning discrimination in the war industries but not in the armed forces. Keep in mind that until the 1960’s, union halls were one of the few places where working class whites and African-Americans could meet together as equals. In the fight against Jim Crow segregation, United Auto Workers, AFSCME and other unions marched with Martin Luther King. King was assassinated in Memphis while supporting the sanitation workers strike.

Equal rights also meant women’s rights. Throughout the history of both unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have played a major role in fighting for women’s rights. Not only did the AFL-CIO support the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), but many of its national unions such as AFSCME, SEIU and others worked tirelessly to pass it. Even though the ERA eventually failed to get enough states to ratify it, the principles behind the Amendment has been widely accepted in public discourse and through legislation.

While improvement in pay and benefits has drawn workers to unions, other factors are equally important in union organizing. Whenever I do labor history programs, I always get into a discussion about core union values such as solidarity, equality, fairness, democratic decision-making and social justice. History is full of examples of how these values have guided the labor movement. Deeply held values are what motivates people to support and even sacrifice for a cause. Values inspire people to join the military, political parties and religions.

These core values of the labor movement are part of the American democratic tradition going back to 1776. Now more than ever, in light of the growing economic inequality in the U.S., the labor movement should educate the public about its contributions to democracy and social justice. Labor history should be taught in our schools and union halls.

Tom Suhrbur, StreetWise Contributor


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