By Al Churchill
For a while now, unions have been taking a public beating without much pushback.
During earlier protests against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s bill to emasculate collective bargaining by public unions, Sarah Palin said, “… these union bosses that are acting like thugs are misleading their union members.”
Mitt Romney once referred to a couple of National Labor Relations Board members as labor “stooges.” Other right-wingers constantly express similar language and themes.
But the facts say otherwise.
No unionists were arrested in Wisconsin for protest activities. Also, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did a study, concluding that almost no property damage occurred during the protests.
It is fact that we do not put up with thugs or “bosses” in my UAW union. With a preamble that is lifted, in part, from Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, the UAW Constitution concretely establishes the membership at large, not elected officials, as the “boss“ -- the final authority. The UAW also has an internal grievance procedure that acts as a bill of rights for every UAW member. American revolutionaries, who fought a war for the right to establish a similar, then radical, social contract, would give proud approval. Tom Paine would smile.
That being said, “boss” is not the appropriate term to describe a productive, responsible union leader. “Elected leader” or “official” is much more polite and accurate.
For those on the political right it is, too often, a rite of passage to savagely denigrate unions and their members. The Brits felt the same way about the Sons of Liberty.
We do understand thugs though. In 1914, during what has been called the Ludlow Massacre, United Mineworkers strike leader Louis Tikas was held by militia members while a rifle butt was broken over his head. He was then shot in the back. During that strike, two women and 11 children were asphyxiated when mine guards machine-gunned the miners’ tent city and looted and set fire to the tents.
In the late 1940s, Walter and Victor Reuther were both injured by shotgun blasts fired through the windows of their respective homes. Walter’s arm was never the same and Victor was blinded in one eye. Union history is replete with similar thuggery.
But I digress.
During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress met in a friendly Carpenters Hall in Philadelphia rather than meet in the state house where loyalist Tories resided. The hall was the home of an association of tradesmen, whose purpose was to foster the well-being of their families through their craft association. There is no evidence that the founders ever disagreed with that goal or the existence of craft associations.
Certainly James Madison understood the need for colonial carpenters to band together when he wrote the 10th of the “Federalist Papers.” Written to encourage ratification of the Constitution in New York, that essay dealt with “factions” and the need to diffuse power among the various interest groups then present in the colonies.
Madison understood the timeless and universal significance of original sin; namely, we are all imperfect -- all of us, labor and management included. He believed that too much power in the hands of too few people inevitably leads to oppression. So America -- indeed the world -- needs strong, countervailing unions.
Madison would support a strong union movement today as a counterbalance to the massive power of American and transnational corporations. Indeed, the founders would enthusiastically encourage America’s citizens to support and, when possible, join an American union.
Why not? At the start of every meeting, we recite the Pledge of Allegiance to an American flag that is prominently displayed in our union halls. Shipping jobs overseas because of cheap foreign labor, transnational corporations are noticeably less patriotic. Indeed, some have set aside loyalty to the country that nurtured them. Unions and their members have not.
The weakening of our unions severely undermines our standard of living, our democratic freedoms and, not so subtly, invites despotism and tyranny into the American heartland. Jefferson and Jackson would not be happy. Nor would a later American, Abraham Lincoln, who had nothing in common with today’s political right wing.