Early this year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported union membership in Wisconsin had fallen to just 11.2 percent of the labor force.
In March, the 73-year-old Milwaukee Labor Press, the voice of Milwaukee area labor unions, folded after publishing its last issue.
In July, the Milwaukee County Labor Council announced that Labor Fest, the exuberant parade and festival held every Labor Day weekend at Maier Festival Park, would not be held this year due to lack of funds.
In August, a report on the top lobbying groups in Wisconsin showed that spending for legislative lobbying by labor unions has plunged dramatically. The list of top lobbyists at the Capitol is now dominated by private business interests and is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.
I watched these developments with dismay and got increasingly bummed out by right-wingers who greeted each new blow with cheers.
The fall of labor is nothing to gloat about. It is a tragedy that will make all of our lives more difficult, endanger our democracy and require us to refight many long and exhausting battles.
Labor unions provide critical balance to the contending interests of capital and labor. Frederick Douglass’ contention that “Power concedes nothing without a demand” is as true of the rights of workers as it was about the abolition of slavery. Employers did not benevolently bestow the eight-hour day, minimum wages, safe working conditions, an end to child labor, collective bargaining, workers’ compensation and other reforms. These reforms were fought for by organized workers, some of whom were shot and beaten by state militias and company goons.
Anyone who gloats about the fall of unions is willfully ignoring the history of working people in this country and the central role unions played in bringing greater safety, security and dignity to all workers.
Labor unions instill leadership, civic education and democratic values. They train union members how to campaign for steward and officer positions and the responsibilities involved in representing fellow workers. They teach parliamentary procedure and how to conduct orderly meetings and decision-making. They teach the nitty-gritty details of petitioning, filing grievances, and negotiating contract language and issues with tough opponents.
All of these union-honed skills transfer to active engagement in the broader society, which benefits everyone. For generations, millions of union members, infused with their ethic of collective responsibility, have been the backbone of political and civil rights campaigns (including for LGBT rights), neighborhood groups, school committees, food drives, you name it.
Labor unions have been hammered by multiple forces: the decline in manufacturing, unfair trade deals, cutbacks and threats by employers, deficits due to unending wars, and corporate-funded politicians, think tanks and union-busting firms. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10 smashed collective bargaining for public sector unions, leading to pay cuts and lay-offs – sending teachers, nurses and government workers scrambling to maintain their families and homes.
Labor unions helped create and solidify the middle class in this country in the middle of the 20th century. The increased income inequality and higher poverty rates of recent years correspond directly to the decline in unions.
This Labor Day, I salute all those who continue to fight back and urge others to read up and get involved. Don’t mourn, organize!