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Union movement can restore America’s middle class

By John Burbank

Labor Day was first celebrated on Sept. 5, 1882, by the members of the Central Labor Union in New York. During the following decade, several states and cities made Labor Day an official holiday.

Meanwhile. the Pullman Co. of Chicago built a company town to produce its railroad cars. Its residents all worked for Pullman, their paychecks drawn from Pullman’s bank, their rent going to Pullman’s profits. In 1893, Pullman laid off hundreds of workers, cut wages, but kept rents up. The workers organized a strike, which the federal government declared a crime, broke up with 12,000 troops, killing two strikers, and jailing Eugene Debs, the president of the American Railway Union.

As a sop to organized labor, Congress made Labor Day a national holiday in 1894, even as the federal government deep-sixed union organizing for 40 years, until FDR and the New Deal.

Fast forward to 1981. When Ronald Reagan became president, one of his first actions was to break PATCO, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. Reagan set the standard for destroying unions and disorganizing workers right up until today.

So now, 30 years later, fewer than 1 out of 12 workers are organized into unions. It is better here in Washington, where every fifth worker is in a union. But that is bad, according to the Boeing boys in Chicago. That’s why they are setting up production in South Carolina, where fewer than 1 out of 20 workers are organized.

Do unions make a difference? They do for the people who actually live in our state. Our median middle class income is more than $60,000. South Carolina’s “middle class” income is $41,000. Our poverty rate is lower than South Carolina’s, our health coverage is better, more of our citizens have high school degrees, college degrees and advanced degrees.

One of the main reasons for this difference in quality of life is that we in Washington have done a much better job at holding onto the New Deal. So what about the New Deal? It was a promise to the people of this country that they could live with a certain amount of economic security and work with a certain amount of respect. Under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s leadership, it became the centerpiece for economic recovery. The New Deal brought Social Security, the minimum wage, unemployment insurance, the 40-hour work week, and the right of workers to organize into unions.

FDR did not wave a magic wand and create the New Deal. He acted because of the demands of unemployed workers, poor workers, and workers organizing into unions, risking their wages, their livelihoods, and their lives. They propelled the New Deal, enabling FDR to overcome corporate opponents and conservative politicians seeking to preserve the status quo of wealth and poverty.

We are in a similar economic situation today. One out of 10 workers is unemployed. One of every 5 kids lives in poverty. The wealthy are grabbing more of the national income, while middle-class families pay more for health care and education, and see their wages stagnate.

The reality of “you-are-on-your-own” politics is not pretty. But instead of revitalizing our country with a new New Deal, political leaders are either leading the charge to take down the New Deal or are caving into that demand. Republicans and Democrats are both guilty.

Whether it is coddling Boeing while it breaks federal labor laws, or figuring out how to take away Medicare and Social Security benefits, or bailing out the big banks while leaving homeowners under water, our political leaders have failed us. They are presiding over the demise of unions and our middle-class quality of life, and the enthronement of global corporations.

Who can turn this around? The answer is as American as apple pie. It is workers organized into unions, to give ordinary Americans a voice and a lever to make a new New Deal. It will be unemployed workers organizing, minimum wage workers organizing, baristas and tellers organizing, along with machinists, teachers, engineers and grocery store clerks. Only a new labor movement can enable Americans to make a new New Deal.

Are we going to allow Labor Day to remain a sop to workers, enabling politicians to declare their respect for work, while dismantling the quality of life that American unions built? Or will we look back on this second decade of the 21st century as the time when this country turned itself around for middle-class Americans? That’s up to all of us to determine. Happy Labor Day 2011!

John Burbank is the executive director and founder of the Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle. He can be reached at

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