Labor Day 2013: Worker rights are civil rights
By Dennis R. Pierce
CLEVELAND, August 30 — American workers will be honored on Monday as the nation celebrates Labor Day. The accomplishments and achievements of workers and the unions that represent them are deserving of this national holiday, and I am proud to be a part of the celebration.
In acknowledging workers and unions, we are acknowledging their contributions toward the creation of the American middle class, leading to betterment of our society today, and also labor’s struggle to provide a better future for our children and grandchildren. Since our founding on May 8, 1863, members of our Brotherhood have fought, and died, to secure the contracts and protections that we enjoy today.
This year, Labor Day also falls in the shadow of the 50th Anniversary of perhaps the most significant event in the history of the American civil rights movement — the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The massive outpouring in our nation’s capital on August 28, 1963 was the product of months of organizing by civil rights, labor and religious organizations, and focused pressure that led to landmark civil rights and voting legislation.
This anniversary garnered much attention from the media this week. The vast majority of the coverage, however, focused on “freedom” since 1963 and very little coverage was given to the “jobs” side of the equation.
Workers have suffered steady erosion in real wages for over three decades, accompanied by lock-step increases in corporate and executive earnings, as all the economic benefits of increased productivity were skimmed off the top by management. And, today, many Americans believe that future generations could be worse off than their parents … a concept that once was unthinkable. This is a direct result of an unrelenting attack upon America’s unions and labor movement that followed the breaking of the air traffic controllers’ union by the federal government in 1981.
There is a direct relationship between the weakened state of organized labor and the crumbling of the middle class. And the most prevalent forms of wage and work discrimination today — based on gender, race, or any other factor — won’t be found in a workforce represented by a union.
Simply stated, worker rights are civil rights and are, in my opinion, the core civil right. I say this because unless one has a secure, good paying job, most of the other rights and benefits of living in a free society are largely illusory. The organizers of the historic 1963 March on Washington understood this, and made jobs an equal focus with freedom. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., understood this as well; he was in Memphis to rally support for striking garbage workers at the time of his assassination on April 4, 1968.
And so we must reclaim our heritage and our holiday from those who paint unions as organizations that were helpful in a bygone era, but an anachronism today. This is a cornerstone of the BLET’s Proud of be American, Proud to be Union campaign that we launched last year. We must redouble our efforts to lead in the reenergizing of rail labor and the labor movement as a whole. Winning the struggle for worker rights will advance the broader struggle for civil rights, as our victories will expose the false divisions invented by Corporate America and their political lackeys to divide and conquer workers on the basis of race, gender, sexual preference, and the whole litany of differences that are irrelevant to the right to a decent-paying stable job, reasonable working conditions, and meaningful health care and retirement benefits.
Each of us has a role in this fight, because union membership is not a spectator sport. You can’t watch from the sidelines if you want to protect and advance the middle class way of life. You need to be on the field as a player. You don’t need to devote your entire existence to the Brotherhood, but doing the little things can go a long way. Attending more Division meetings, studying your contract,voting on contract issues and in the election of your union’s officers are just a few things you can do to become more involved. Taking these small steps will go a long way toward honoring the legacy of those who came before us while, at the same time, securing the future of those who will take the throttle when we retire. And you will be taking your place in the most important civil rights struggle of our generation.
Speaking on behalf of the entire BLET Advisory Board, it is an honor and a privilege to serve the membership of North America’s oldest labor union. We were all impressed with the large turnout at the Southwestern Convention Meeting in New Orleans earlier this week. It was encouraging to see so many members, both veteran and younger members, who took the time from their busy lives to attend. Their interest in the Organization is evident and it is a positive sign for the future of our Brotherhood.
We are also encouraged by our recent organizing win at Texas-Pacifico. I am proud to welcome these new members to the House of Labor as we begin the process of negotiating their first-ever collective bargaining agreement.
On behalf of the Advisory Board, I wish you all a happy and healthy Labor Day.
Friday, August 30, 2013