Saturday, September 6, 2014

Ode to Unions

The celebration of Labor Day this week got me thinking about Wyoming’s working people. The holiday was first created to celebrate "the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.” In 1894, Congress set aside the first Monday in September to recognize the accomplishments of unions. One-hundred-twenty-years later it’s a three-day weekend without meaning.

When the Taft-Hartley Act was passed in 1947, half the American workforce belonged to unions. Today the number is closer to 15%.  That didn’t happen accidentally. There’s been a well-orchestrated strategy to deny workers the right to organize. Unions were a key part of the New Deal coalition, contributing both money and votes to progressive candidates and causes. Republicans determined to break that coalition.

New coalitions formed around progressive ideas. The national Democratic Party was not a casualty of anti-union efforts. Workers and their families paid the price. The negative impact can be seen in Wyoming as easily as anywhere in the country.

More people are working more hours, taking fewer days for rest than ever before.  The US Department of Labor estimates that on the Labor Day one in five American workers will be required to work. In Wyoming, a high number of adults are forced to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. But most of these jobs have few if any benefits and the ends don’t meet.

While union contracts protect members from being fired for unjust reasons, non-union Wyoming workers have no job protections. They can be fired for no cause regardless of how many years they have faithfully served an employer. Adding insult to injury is a law recently passed allowing Wyoming employers to pocket an employee’s earned but unused vacation pay when employment is terminated.

Many of these low wage jobs have no allowance for sick days. A worker can lose his or her job by taking time off to care for a child or spouse. State law protects employers who discriminate against gay or lesbian workers but does not adequately protect those who are forced to work in unsafe conditions. Wyoming women continue to be paid less than their male counterparts, a problem that finds a solution in most union contracts.

Those are a few of the economic and social costs of losing the labor movement. But there are also significant political costs.

While anti-union strategies have not harmed the fortunes of progressive candidates nationally, they have effectively destroyed the two-party system in our state. As the labor movement in Wyoming declined so did the fortunes of the Democratic Party. Before their precipitous decline in numbers, Wyoming union members were the bulwark of voter registration efforts.

The last time a Democrat won one of the state’s three congressional seats was 1976 when Teno Roncalio ran for his final term in the US House of Representatives. In 1976 there were 77,000 registered Democrats and 87,000 registered Republicans. Seventy percent of all eligible voters were then registered. Voter registration was largely the work of organized labor.

A 10,000 registered-voter gap meant Democrats had a fighting chance. Today the gap is 110,000 and 44% of all eligible voters aren’t even registered. As the numbers of union households declined, the numbers of registered Democrats declined.

Some think a one-party political system is okay but Wyoming’s working people should ask whether there is any relationship between this history and their lives.

Candidates who focused on hot button issues lured working people into voting against their own economic interests. Voters were stirred about same-sex marriage even though the greater threat to their marriages is low wages. They made voters angry about immigration even as they closed union shops in the US and opened sweatshops in Mexico. Disingenuously they convinced voters the government would take away their guns, while they took away their right to organize and with it their ability to feed their children.

Some will say unions were once necessary but are no longer relevant. Those same people must believe the same thing about the middle class.

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