Columns » Warwick Sabin

Labor pains

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Labor Day weekend is sewn tightly into the fabric of American tradition. It marks the end of summer — a chance for one more barbecue or family gathering before fall, football season and colder weather. Few of us ever think about why we have the holiday in the first place. Yes, it was intended to celebrate labor, but not in a general sense. Conceived during the height of the industrial revolution in the late 1800s, Labor Day honored the working class, many of whom toiled for long hours in terrible conditions for minimal wages. Subsequent decades brought forth a movement that achieved great advances for American workers. Today we take for granted laws passed less than 100 years ago that guarantee a minimum wage and a safe working environment while preventing exploitative practices like child labor. These accomplishments required the use of collective bargaining as applied by labor unions, and many of the battles were hard-fought, sometimes violent. Business interests, especially large corporations, fought mandatory labor standards at every turn, labeling them socialistic and un-American while paying elected officials to vote against them. By courageously challenging powerful elites, organized labor helped millions of Americans escape poverty and constitute a new middle class that contributed to the success of our nation in the 20th century. But many people these days do not have a favorable impression of unions, because of corruption scandals and overly-aggressive tactics in recent years. Also, smaller percentages of Americans belong to unions as we experience the shift from an industrial to an information-based and service economy. Manufacturing jobs, which provided the bulk of organized labor, are leaving the country at increasing rates. Arkansas never developed many industrial jobs, and therefore the organized labor movement never had much of a foothold here. We are a “right to work” state, which means the state has passed a law prohibiting mandatory union membership where unions exist (outside of railroads, airlines and U.S. property, where federal laws apply). But if there is distrust of, or hostility toward, traditional organized labor in Arkansas, we should take a closer look at how the labor movement is recasting itself in the wake of current economic trends. For while Arkansas did not participate in the industrial revolution on the same scale as other states, we are certainly feeling the effects of the transition to a service economy. And the impact on the working class is similar to what happened when people started taking factory jobs in the 19th century. A big company like Wal-Mart pays wages below subsistence levels and often forces its employees to work just below the threshold that would entitle them to full-time benefits. It offers health insurance, but many employees can’t afford it, thus shifting that burden to taxpayers through Medicaid. And it has been implicated in a colorful variety of labor scandals, from widespread instances of managers forcing uncompensated overtime work, to the exploitation of undocumented immigrants in locked buildings, to child labor, to the largest-ever class-action sexual discrimination lawsuit. In effect, 21st-century service employees are the new 19th-century factory workers. Once again, corporate interests have enormous power and use financial contributions to ensure that politicians look after their interests. That’s why there has been no action to raise the minimum wage, even though no one can feed, clothe and house a family at the current rate. That’s why there has been no law passed to force big employers to offer some form of affordable health insurance. Just like during the industrial revolution, elected officials won’t do anything to solve these problems. As a result, the conditions are ripe for another large-scale labor movement to seek justice by organizing workers. It is no coincidence that the fastest-growing union is the Service Employees International Union, which broke away from the AFL-CIO about a month ago because it wanted to implement fresh, innovative strategies. It’s clear that companies like Wal-Mart understand the historical parallels and respect the potential force of collective bargaining. Anywhere there is an attempt to organize Wal-Mart employees — even if it is only a handful of workers in a store bakery — they fight it vigorously. And if those bakery employees actually vote to join together as a tiny union, Wal-Mart might close the whole store! Organized labor is easily demonized in Arkansas, but in the current economic climate workers here have more at stake than ever before, and the barriers that keep people in poverty will become harder to overcome without challenging the status quo with a movement rooted in morality and equality. Just something to consider while you enjoy your day off, unless you are an employee of Wal-Mart, which does not close for Labor Day.

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