A corporate chief executive officer, a public union worker and a Tea Party member sit around a table. In the center of the table is a plate holding a dozen cookies. The CEO takes 11 cookies and whispers in the Tea Partier’s ear, “Look out for that union guy, he wants part of your cookie.”
This joke has been making the rounds on the Internet in recent days. It’s a brilliant summary of the current state of American politics. We are told we need to endure very deep cuts in wages, health benefits, education, aid to the poor and public services in general. Why? Because the government is “broke,” apparently. That’s funny. It didn’t seem so broke when it came to bailing out the banks as a reward for crashing the economy ($700 billion), or extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy (reducing government revenue by $200-500 billion), or throwing away money on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ($159.3 billion set aside for 2011 alone).
By comparison, the deep spending cuts demanded by the Tea Party wing of the Republicans in the House amount to…$61 billion over the next year (to be achieved by cutting Pell Grants to students and heating aid for the needy, among other things).
And the amount of money that Gov. Scott Walker wants to save in Wisconsin by crushing public sector unions? About $1 billion. That’s right, our dear leaders are squeezing every last penny out of the working class while spending lavishly on shiny guns and giveaways to the rich. The idea that the attack on unions is about saving money is a joke. What they are saving is pocket change in the grand scheme of things.
The campaign to destroy public sector unions in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana is not about fixing any state or federal budgets. That was made crystal clear when the unions agreed to accept every pay cut demanded by Walker, yet he still refused to let them keep their collective bargaining rights. What this is really about is the privatization of public services. If public schools were replaced by charter schools, for example, and the wages and benefits of teachers were slashed, then the companies running those charter schools could make huge profits. But the unions stand in the way of any such plan, and that is why capitalist politicians are trying to smash them.
This is nothing new. Big businesses and their pawns in government have always been trying to make us work harder for less, and unions have always been the main force standing up to them. Many of the things we take for granted today – such as the eight-hour work day, getting weekends off and the fact that children no longer work in factories – were won through years of hard struggle by unions. Organized labor has a long and proud history of fighting and winning in the face of odds much worse than the ones we’re dealing with today. We should remember this history; remember what unions did for us and why we need them.
The first unions in America were formed in the 19th century, at a time when workers who stood up for their rights faced not only the risk of losing their jobs, but also a good chance of being shot. Picketing and strikes were illegal and judges allowed companies to use private “police” – that is, hired thugs – to beat or even kill workers who dared to strike in defiance of the law. Anyone trying to openly organize a union was liable to be thrown in jail for “conspiracy.”
One of the first nationwide unions, the Knights of Labor, had to organize itself as a secret society to avoid prosecution.
Workers were commonly required to work between 10 and 12 hours a day (including children), and the most important demand of the underground union movement was to shorten the working day to eight hours. Some paid for it with their lives. On May 3, 1886, hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike to demand an eight-hour working day. The police responded by firing live ammunition into the crowds at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago. The protests continued. The next day, an unknown person threw a bomb at police in Haymarket Square, killing one and injuring others. Shots were fired and seven officers and an unknown number of protesters were killed, hundreds of labor activists were arrested and some were executed simply for being involved with the movement. Only after several decades of such struggle was the eight-hour workday finally won.
In the end, unions fought and won better working conditions and rights not just for themselves, but for non-unionized workers as well. Free weekends and the eight-hour work day are for everyone. No one lives in fear of private company thugs any more. And whenever union members manage to win higher wages for themselves, this puts pressure even on the employers of non-unionized labor to raise wages somewhat. After all, they need to keep up or risk losing workers.
We’ve come a long way since the days of the Haymarket martyrs. But this progress did not come about because robber barons suddenly realized the way they had been treating workers was wrong. It came about because workers – organized in unions – forced their bosses to compromise and dragged them kicking and screaming into a world where strikes are no longer answered with bullets. But many capitalists would love to go back to the way things used to be, if only they could get away with it. Unions are our shield against this threat; they help us keep what our ancestors fought for. And if we had stronger unions, we may even be able to start moving forward again.
Mike Tudoreanu is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]