As part of a six-day worldwide labor solidarity campaign, American union members protested outside the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C., yesterday in support of greater trade union rights and protections in Mexico.
Let’s be honest. Sometimes, outside of election campaign seasons, even progressives wonder what’s so great about unions. Sure, we had a role to play before job safety laws, the eight-hour day, Social Security and civil rights laws were passed. But today?
Even our friends aren’t immune to the relentless attacks on unions from the right and the stereotypes that come with them: union thugs, lazy workers, relics of the past, self-absorbed, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Union members have been called many stereotypes over the years: thugs, relics, selfish—the list goes on. But the truth is union members are people who work and make contributions to their communities every day. Union members are innovating on the job and training the next generation of skilled workers, among many other things.
The AFL-CIO and Guatemalan labor unions first filed a labor complaint under the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement in 2008. In the nearly five years since the complaint was filed, the situation for workers has not improved. They still struggle to organize their workplaces without retribution, they still fight to receive the pay promised for work performed and they continue to be targeted with violence, including murder, for standing up for the most basic of internationally recognized labor rights. The International Trade Union Confederation reports that 10 unionists were murdered there in 2011—the most recent year for which statistics are available. It is long past time for the government of Guatemala to change or for the U.S. government to proceed to arbitrate the case. Justice delayed is justice denied—and for far too long, justice has been denied for Guatemala's workers.
The 400,000 drop in labor union membership announced by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics last week is discouraging. The bigger story is that at the center of the drop is the decline in employment for public-sector workers, most notably local government workers. This has been the weakest sector of the economy. And that largely reflects the decline in teachers. So, this is not so much about unions losing, but the continued lack of focus of American economic policy on maintaining investments for America’s future in the face of the ongoing weak economy. The myopic debates on the fiscal deficit and cutting budgets to meet the educational needs of America’s children (in order to preserve tax cuts for the currently wealthy) is not a plan to make America succeed in the long run.
Under a white, wintry sky, nearly two-dozen union members volunteered to rebuild a 100-foot wooden bridge on a public trail in the Black Hills.
“When you’ve got skilled workers with the right tools, the work goes quick,” says Dana Garry, who manages the 109-mile Mickelson Trail for South Dakota’s Department of Game, Fish and Parks. In two days, the volunteers rebuilt abutments and replaced the bridge surface and railing. “It was just amazing,” she said. “These volunteers fill an important need.”