Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Workers’ rights struggle persists

by Charles Strobel
Room In The Inn Founding Director

Recently, several issues around workers’ rights have captured media headlines.

Two local demonstrations, one regarding Publix stores, the other McDonald’s fast-food workers, had dozens of farm workers and employees standing in protest outside both establishments. At the same time, increasing minimum-wage legislation is gaining more state and national attention, and the recent union fight at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant is another example of the constant assault on “collective bargaining” around our nation.

All these efforts are not surprising or new. They are rooted in a centuries-old struggle.

If we go back 150 years, just as the Industrial Revolution was beginning, there were no “rights” for the ordinary worker. Millions of coal miners, railroad workers, factory workers and steel workers labored long hours in unsafe working conditions with little pay. Children were a part of that labor force. Horror stories abound of oppressive conditions with no relief in sight. Gradually, grievances began to rise up out of the poorest among them, and the labor movement began.

Think back 100 years and consider a world of labor without child labor laws, health and safety standards, workers’ compensation, unemployment compensation, a 40-hour week, a minimum wage, health insurance, retirement benefits, paid vacations and the right to organize into unions. There was none of these 100 years ago.

We are riding on the waves of the success of a labor revolution that had thousands of poor people die for these rights and privileges. And history shows that all the industrial barons — who today are our philanthropic heroes — did not give those benefits freely and generously. They were mandated by government or the pressures of a violent labor movement.

Today these rights that were fought for and defended by an earlier workforce are seen as benefits and privileges that every good company wants to provide freely, without unions, to maintain worker morale and keep attrition rates low. Many employers believe that these benefits contribute to better customer service and job performance. And doesn’t it make sense that they would increase quality workmanship? These benefits are a form of “profit sharing” to workers, a way that owners can reward workers for helping their companies achieve success. And it removes the stigma of slave labor that still exists in our country and other parts of our world in sweatshops and migrant fields.

Of course, the costs for such benefits have increased, and this remains the basis for attacking “collective bargaining.” These costs can be a legitimate “pushback” from management at the negotiating table, but what seems more serious is the desire to deny the right to collective bargaining itself.

I believe this struggle for worker rights — now ironically central to the revolutions in the Middle East — is another beacon for the world to emulate when it looks to our American experiment in democratic governance. We are indebted to several generations of workers more than 100 years ago for fighting and dying to secure these rights. Without their sacrifice, we would still be slaves to a laissez-faire economy depending on its own self-correcting market forces that history shows never has trickled down voluntarily for the worker.

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