In his weekly EC from DC column, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. offers a history lesson about the important role unions have played and notes that while workers have been the target of attempts to balance the budget, the richest have not sacrificed a penny:
This afternoon it was my great pleasure to join Congressman Yoder from Kansas’ Third District on KCUR’s Up to Date. It was a good reminder that we indeed have more matters in common than we do in conflict. While we might take different paths to get there, we have the same goal: a more prosperous, stronger, safer and more just country for our children. It was nice to return to talk with Steve Kraske and many of you about the important issues of the day. I look forward to continuing to build a good relationship with Congressman Yoder in the months and years to come.
This Sunday, I will have the opportunity to talk again about many of the issues Congressman Yoder and I discussed today on NBC’s Meet the Press. I will be joined by the former head of the RNC, Gov. Haley Barbour (R-MS); host of MSNBC's "The Last Word," Lawrence O'Donnell; president of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka; and editorial board member and columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Kim Strassel to discuss government spending, the budget, potential government shutdown, and the protests in Wisconsin. This is the second time this year I have been asked to join the roundtable on the nation’s longest running news program. It is truly an honor.
For those of you who listened to this afternoon’s broadcast of Up to Date, we started our conversation talking about what is happening in the streets of Madison, Wisconsin and in capitals across America. It is important. There are absolutely political overtones to what is happening in Wisconsin. However, I do not want to focus on those strictly political calculations. Rather, what I would like to take a moment to talk about this week is the disappearing middle class and its effect on our nation’s economic and social health.
In this country of opportunity and equality, there is a widening gap between the rich and the poor. As we talk about workers’ rights and their importance in our economy, we must keep in mind this ever-growing gap between the haves and the have-nots.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the birth of America’s middle class is due in large part to unions and collective bargaining. As we began to industrialize and men and women moved from rural to urban areas, working in stores and factories, unions arose as a counterbalance to the power and might of industry. They worked for the safety and well-being of the workers.
Individually, the average factory worker at the turn of the century had very little power, but together, they could demand changes in wages and working conditions. Factory shutdowns meant losses in profits, and the titans of industries at first fought ruthlessly against workers uniting together.
In 1894, the American Railway Union conducted the nation’s first large scale strike. Workers who made the famous Pullman Palace Rail Cars went on strike after their wages were cut. George Pullman refused to speak with the laborers’ representatives about the wages and safety conditions at the plant. Understand, as well, that the workers at the the railcar factory lived in a company town called Pullman, where they paid rent and bought food and clothes from the Pullman company. At the same time their wages went down, rent went up. The company was pinching at both ends and the ensuing strike shut down rail travel west of Chicago. At its height, 250,000 railroad workers across 27 states went on strike in sympathy to the workers at the Pullman company. Switchmen across the nation refused to move any train carrying a Pullman car.
President Cleveland, siding with his friend George Pullman, dispatched the US Army to break the strike. Thirteen strikers were shot and killed by the time the strike was broken. Rents were not lowered, but the courts later ruled that “company towns” like Pullman where contrary to the American tradition.
Perhaps the largest impact of the Pullman strike was less immediate. The power of workers uniting was undeniable. The American Railway Union inspired the creation of more unions in more industries.
Those unions gave us the eight-hour work day, the five-day work week, the weekend, the minimum wage, child labor laws, maternity leave and most recently, equal pay for equal work.
The civil rights movement used strategies learned from the labor movement. Unions are a part of our national fabric and truly created our middle class. Decent wages for a hard day’s work was the driving force for the labor movement, and their advocacy balanced the corporate interests that dominated industry and politics of post Civil War America.
Organizing is a means by which people set aside their individual interest and advocate together for the good of the whole. That has resulted in higher wages for both union and non-union employees in areas where the two are in competition. It has forced companies and government alike to address safety and health concerns in the workplace, and has led to a better standard of living for the typical American worker.
The labor movement was founded on, and continues to believe that, neither the government nor corporations inherently are interested in the well-being of workers. History has born that out. There is strength in their numbers, but as the American workforce has changed, so has the make-up and membership of American unions.
In 1935, when the National Labor Relations Act was signed, guaranteeing every American worker the right to organize and collectively bargain, nearly 36 percent of the nations workers were in unions. That number is now a little over 11 percent.
What is more alarming, and what I hope this history of the union movement has brought us to, is that our nation’s workers are making less and worker longer and harder than ever. The top income-earners are making more than they have in history and the middle-class continues to pay the price. The middle is not the middle any longer.
If we define the “middle class” even loosely as the middle 60 percent of wage earners, notice in the first chart how little of the nation’s wealth is controlled by that middle 60 percent. The top 20 percent of all wage earners control 85% of the nations wealth, leaving the lower 80 percent with just the remaining 15 percent. The bottom chart that shows what Americans would like the distribution to be more like also shows the wisdom of the people of our nation. The bottom chart is a far more healthy and sustainable long-term economic model with the middle class controlling 60 percent of the nation’s wealth.
As the bargaining power of American workers has diminished, it has not been all bad for everyone.
While we are talking about once again cutting the pay of teachers, nurses, and public workers, from sanitation workers to public defenders, those who received one of the largest tax cuts in history at the end of 2010 have wages that are 185 times those of average workers that continue to bear the brunt of “shared sacrifice”.
We absolutely need to balance our budgets, both nationally and at the state level, but we are making decisions that very clearly indicate where our national priorities are. While we attack public servants at all levels, we gladly give revenue away to those in the very top income brackets. You will notice in the list of cuts proposed by the Continuing Resolution we passed, without my support, there was no talk of raising fees on oil company leases. No, Head Start funding and home heating assistance were “necessary” cuts, but subsides to oil companies could not be contemplated.
The lobbies for corporations in Washington and in our state capitals are very good and well-funded. Sadly, the lobby for the poor and the young is much weaker.
Which brings me back to our nation’s unions. For over 100 years, they have often been the lone voice for the poor and the young, advocating for education, public safety and a stronger middle class. Which is why I will continue to stand with them.