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Honoring America's workers

Posted By Ellen Ratner On 09/06/2010 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

Today is Labor Day, and we have been celebrating the holiday for well over 100 years.

According to the Department of Labor the purpose of Labor Day is to honor workers’ contributions to the strengthening, prosperity and the well-being of the country.

Although it is somewhat disputed, Labor Day began in New York in September of 1882. It began due to the work of Matthew Maguire, a union member of the International Association of Machinists, a union that exists strongly today. The idea was to have a “working man’s holiday.”

For those us who grew up in mid-century, Labor Day was a big deal. Labor Day touted the manufacturing base of our country and the real accomplishments that working people, as well as the unions, contributed to this country.

No more is Labor Day a big deal. We have too many people unemployed, and the unions have lost quite a bit of membership. This is a fact that the conservatives tout as evidence of the weakening influence of unions. Is it surprising that union membership has dropped when General Motors employed 486,000 workers in 1970 and today has only 52,000 working in the United States and 32,000 working in China? No wonder unions have lost members – American jobs have been lost.

There are many reasons for this job loss. By its tax policies, the American government made it easy to ship jobs overseas. The U.S. government did not enforce worker rights and conditions in overseas factories as provided by free-trade agreements. American companies ignored quality control argued by W. Edwards Deming and others allowing Japan to make better cars. In addition, our government ignored infrastructure needs such as broadband and allowed companies to wire broadband only where it was profitable to them. China began wiring its entire country for broadband in 1999.

There are even more hidden problems overseas, as we are so hungry for oil that we look the other way when American investors in oil-rich countries such as the United Arab Emirates, or UAE, allowing headquarters to be built with modern-day slave labor. These workers are paid roughly $300 per month, work in conditions of 90 degrees or more heat and live four to a room without air conditioning. They have their passports confiscated and need to get their money from ATM machines, which can take up to 5 percent of their meager salary. Visas and visa renewals eat up even more of their monthly salary. U.S. labor agreements have focused on manufacturing jobs rather than construction work, but it all boils down to the same: Workers are exploited, and American workers have unfair competition.

All of this is terrible for the American worker. However, there is another big problem lurking around the corner – the differences between rich and poor in the U.S. In some democracies such as South Africa, the rich must live in gated communities so that the poverty-stricken don’t overrun them. We can’t afford a democracy like South Africa’s where gated communities are built for pure safety. We must build and maintain our middle class. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the wage facts are not working in our favor. One percent of Americans make 23 percent of our nation’s income. Approximately 10 percent of Americans make 49 percent of our income, and 36.5 million Americans live in poverty.

The difference between workers pay and executive pay is increasing wildly. According to the AFL-CIO, Aubrey McClendon from Chesapeake Energy Corporation made more than $100 million in 2009 when the average worker made $32,049. Mr. McClendon made 3,122 times the average worker. The other two top offenders were Nabors Industries, Eugene Isenberg at $59,834,630 and Oracle’s Lawrence Ellison coming in at $56,810,851.

We have all heard stories about unions driving up health-care costs. But many countries provide health care for their workers, so that is not the problem. It is clearly unsustainable when a municipal employee gets a pension higher than their salary. These abuses need to be fixed. Why is it then that the various tea parties are harping on the unions when $18.4 billion was paid in cash bonuses on Wall Street in 2008? That surely would hire a ton of teachers and policemen.

Unions are not perfect, but union cashiers make an average of $10.97 per hour, 36 percent more than non-union workers. These workers are not living high off the hog like the CEOs and Wall Street traders. Given these facts, I’ll stick with the advocacy and lobbying of the unions. After all, they brought us the weekend.


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