Saturday, April 18, 2009

Why has "UNION" become a dirty word?

By Kristopher Hite

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me


...and on and on, as most people who attended grade-school anytime in the later half of the twentieth century probably know. This classic ballad of the American landscape was written by good old Woody Guthrie. But there is a song, most people probably do not know, that was written by this same brilliant American - the ballad of the Ludlow Massacre.

On April 20th, 1914 twenty men, women, and children were murdered in Ludlow, Colorado by the Colorado National Guard. The men in these families were part of the mine worker's union that were staging a labor strike. This struggle represents the roots of the American labor movement and unfortunately has been forgotten in recent years.



In his penetrating dissection of the recent financial meltdown and subsequent corporate power-grab Matt Taibbi makes a subtle point regarding unions and their political decline in recent decades. Taibbi describes how Bill Clinton's administration turned their back on unions simply because the Democrats were sick of loosing the fund-raising game during campaigns. Of course there has been a concerted effort by Republicans to undermine the philosophical concept of a union for the better part of the last century, but this relatively recent change in Democratic attitudes towards unions has further eroded any remaining traction unions held in the minds of the electorate.

Cornell University has an entire college dedicated to the study of industrial/labor relations. Much work here focuses on giving workers the tools they need to use leverage when undertaking collective bargaining. The college helps the research process of unions so they might identify weaknesses in corporations and exploit them in order to gain the basic rights they deserve - health care, decent pay, respect.

This is where, I think, there is a fundamental misunderstanding amongst the general public. What is the purpose of a union?

To guarantee basic rights - health care, decent pay, respect.

This is the reason I am writing about this on Tom Paine's Ghost.

People have been made to believe that unions are filled with fat lazy socialists who don't want to work. This is part of the distorting barrage of information that oozes from broadcast corporations such as the Sinclair Broadcast Group who have their tentacles wrapped around the visual cortices of the American Midwest. Some unions may have behaved improperly and over-stepped their bounds when considering the United Auto Workers Union and others. But this is no reason to disband the concept of unions altogether!

Again. The main purpose of a Union is to guarantee basic rights - health care, decent pay, respect.

Upon recommendation from a friend that attended the college of Industrial Labor Relations I began reading a book titled Global Unions. This book is the distillation of a conference held in February of 2006 regarding the past current and future role of unions on the international stage. Video of each talk given can be found here.

The main point made here, through historical perspectives and contemporary examples, is that in order for unions to be effective, from now on, they need to operate on the same scale as the multinational corporations they serve to balance.

While we approach the anniversary of the Ludlow massacre I feel obligated to breath onto the embers of understanding unions. It will be interesting to see how ideas about unions evolve in the recently bluing state of Colorado. This state has maintained an anti-union err up until very recent history. Traveling to Pueblo, CO in fall of 2008 I heard many first-hand accounts of scabs blocking the efficacy of a steel-workers strike at the Oregon Steel Mill there in the early 2000s.

On the birthday of Clarence Darrow I feel it appropriate to reignite an understanding and passion for core union precepts; basic rights - health care, decent pay, respect.

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