Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Some thoughts about Labor.

The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, the Homestead Strike, the Ludlow Massacre, the 40-hour workweek, child labor laws, and so many other events and achievements mark the history of the labor movement.  America’s greatness comes on the backs of the American worker.  There is a lot in our past and the comfort of our present that organized labor can be proud of, so what happens now?  Labor Day in 2012 is not what it was when in 1882 30,000 workers marched through the streets of New York City in observance of the first Labor Day.  As a member of a union and a high school social studies teacher I have found myself caught in an internal debate.  How can the Labor Movement remain relevant when it seems there is little willingness to evolve and adapt to a changing economy and society?

In the fall of 2011 I attended a conference for young union leadership.  It had the potential to be a great event bringing together the young energy of the labor movement to collaborate and galvanize our work and focus.  I did not find that to be the reality.  On the last night of the conference I attended a social event with another teacher I met earlier.  After the event we joined many others and went down to the hotel bar and continued to enjoy our company.  As we parted ways in the lobby I was drawn to a ruckus outside the hotel.  There in front of a nice hotel in the middle of Minneapolis at 3:00 am I was greeted by a mob of 100+ fellow labor leaders drunk, some with glasses still in hand, many shirtless, and screaming pro-labor chants.  I was stunned.  In the context of a constant barrage of media and political attacks and growing public discontent with organized labor this behavior has no place in the movement.  How did so many others of the “young leaders” not see this?  How did I find myself in this place, having taken time away from my classroom to be part of this event, and this is the closing note?

I left the conference fearful.  Organized labor needs to evolve, continue to address the needs of the worker, and adapt to an Internet driven global society.  Labor has legitimate battles to be fought.  The wave of popular sentiment against organized labor has left the American worker vulnerable to outsourcing, dramatic overhauls of pensions, and the loss of bargaining rights.  But Labor can’t do that without embracing the new realities of the American worker. 

Today’s American worker needs professional development combined with a fair and honest critique of their job performance in order to remain competitive and regain popular support.  We need to embrace the fact that we are the best in the world at what we do and behave accordingly.  There is no room in American popular culture for people who demand respect and professional wages to be dancing around in the street half-naked and drunk. 

It will be fascinating to see what plays out.  I know one thing; there is no sign that the political attacks on organized labor will let up any time soon.  So, unless popular sentiment can be swayed the American worker is in for a bumpy ride.

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