Since the 1940s, when my father was a stalwart member of the AFL-CIO, membership in unions in the United States has tumbled from over a third of the American work force to somewhere around 8%. The vast majority of union members today, like me, are public workers such as teachers and other school employees, police officers, fire fighters, and transportation workers.
By the time my father joined the labor force, most of the workers’ rights necessary for a productive, civilized society were in place. The right of workers to bargain collectively with employers had been established through the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. By the end of 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act had guaranteed most employees a limited work week with rights to overtime pay, a minimum wage, and some (albeit inadequate) safety requirements.
Like most of his generation, my father knew better than to take these basic rights for granted. After all, he well remembered that his mother—my grandmother—had put in 16-hour days, six days a week, standing on concrete floors and steaming herself over industrial laundry and ironing machines. Twenty years of that enabled her, a young widow, to keep and raise all four of her children. She was lucky—she didn’t work with the toxic chemicals that likely condemned some of her coworkers to an early and painful death.
People forget. People fail to think about things that aren’t immediately apparent. People tend to take their rights for granted—until someone takes them away.
Two generations of comfort and prosperity have allowed the American middle class to forget that the American labor movement created the “middle class” in the first place. Before that, there were the very wealthy few, who controlled business and industry, and a vast ocean of poor people, who basically worked to empower and enrich the already rich and powerful.
Two decades of relentless propaganda from the far right (amplified, in the past few years, by Fox News) has convinced large segments of the American public that union workers—ordinary folks like my father and me—are enemies of prosperity, greedy and spoiled and responsible for the national debt.
Meanwhile, manufacturing jobs by the hundreds of thousands have been shipped abroad, where workers (many of them children) work as virtual slaves. Rights to unionize have been greatly curtailed in many states, and Republicans in Congress rail against the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, which would help prevent employers from intimidating employees who may want to bargain collectively but do not currently have that right.
Middle-class complacency has allowed the interests of big business and industry to virtually extinguish organized labor in the private sector.
Now, however, in Madison, Wisconsin, the battle may have finally begun for American workers to push back and remind the nation of that often repeated but seldom heeded quote by poet George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."