Balgenorth examines "Life Without Unions?"

Where Children are Worked to Death For Higher Profits

June 2011 - The Los Angeles Times recently published a harrowing and heartbreaking report about how thousands of children in India, as young as eight years old, are forced to work in coal mines, or else face starvation with their families.

The wealthy owners of the mines value their cheap labor, the story explains, because “their small bodies are well suited to the narrow coal seams.” It goes on to describe how the kids crawl into “rat hole” shafts, then, lying horizontally, hack away with picks and bare hands for hours. Then they emerge dragging their product behind them, “their faces and lungs blackened by coal.”

Deaths are not uncommon, and many of the children have seen friends killed by collapsing shafts or falling rocks. Those who don’t meet that fate are still certain to face major health problems, and a likely early death, because of their badly damaged lungs, the story adds.

A few days after that story appeared, a cogent writer on the Times’ letters page reflected on its relevance to America’s political climate today. “Those who would destroy labor unions and denigrate workers’ rights – while fighting for unfettered corporate excesses earned on the backs of cheap labor – should look to the reality of children worked to death for the sake of higher profits,” the writer opined.

She was right on the money. Children were once forced to work in coal mines in America, until unions stopped it. But now, right-wing politicians and their wealthy benefactors are pursuing precisely that agenda: the destruction of unions, the end of workers’ rights, and unfettered corporate excesses.

It’s no coincidence that the greatest advances in workers’ rights and Americans’ standards of living occurred during times of union ascendency. Child labor laws, the minimum wage, the Social Security Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act, all passed during the New Deal era as a result of union activism. Later on, union support was key in passing workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance laws, Medicare, the Voting Rights Act, and the Occupational Health and Safety Act, all essential protections for middle class workers.

“Indeed, it would be hard to exaggerate the influence that the labor movement has had on creating and maintaining that social safety net that undergirds the American middle class,” concluded a recent study by the Center for American Progress (CAP).

That study explored the connection between rates of union membership, and the well-being of middle-class workers, defined as the middle 60 percent of income earners. It found that when union membership shrinks, middle class income drops, among union and non-union workers alike, while the richest one percent of Americans hoard an ever greater share.

Today, union membership has declined and the middle class is hurting, earning its smallest share of the national income since the Great Depression. Meanwhile, median corporate CEO pay increased 27% in 2010.

But the CAP study found wide variations by state in middle-class earnings, relating directly to rates of union membership. In all 10 of the states with the lowest rates of union membership (all in the South and Midwest), the share of total state income going to middle-class households was below the national average.

Still, the hue and cry to destroy unions and harm workers is relentless. While refusing to restore reasonable tax rates on those wealthy CEOs, Republicans in Congress are moving to destroy Medicare as we know it. Republicans in statehouses across the country call for an end to collective bargaining rights. Here in California, right-wing associations like the Associated Builders and Contractors campaign for local government bans on Project Labor Agreements that provide good wages and benefits for all workers. (We’re fighting back. Visit www.calmunilabor.comfor more information on that battle.)

“Without unions, hope for a strong economy for all working families is dim,” the CAP study concluded. “Indeed it is hard to imagine a vibrant middle-class society without a strong labor movement.”

We are under all-out attack and in a fight for our lives against these super-rich oligarchs who want to control all the wealth and make all the rules, with no organized, united workers and unions around to stop them from getting their way.

And we know what happens when they get their way.

They send children into coal mines.

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