Unions Belong to Us All


July 2014 - Lately I’ve been studying the words of labor figures of past times who had the greatest success at achieving results that improved the quality of life for working people and their families.

Without a doubt, there is a constant theme in their words and their approach. It is in their understanding that the essence of what a union is comes from no one person or single narrow concern. Rather, a union is defined by its course, its mission, to bring working people together, united, to bring better lives to all.

That mission never changes, even if sometimes, individual workers and leaders may lose sight of it. Individual workers and leaders do change. Leaders come and go. Some hang around too long. Others burn out too quickly. The mission remains consistent.

Murray Kempton, a great journalist and a union activist with the Communications Workers of America, told his fellow workers:

“The union is not for yourself but for your children. It does not arise to avenge the past but to claim the future. It is an expression not of the dignity of its leaders, but the dignity of all. It was not called into being to celebrate the majesty of one person; it does not live to serve the self-indulgence of another. It is not property but mission. Anyone can belong to a union; but a union belongs to no one, and least of all to anyone who is ashamed of where he or she came from, and is indifferent to those he or she left behind. The union leader is not the owner of an institution; he or she is the caretaker of a tradition.”

A hundred years ago, labor leader Samuel Gompers spoke of unions bringing a recognition of the interdependence of working people upon each other to work together to improve life for all. In his era, that recognition was necessary to improve terrible working conditions we now consider unthinkable, but were then very real.

“We aim to establish a normal work day, to take the children from the factory and workshop and give them the opportunity of the school and the playground.  In a word, our unions strive to lighten toil, educate their members, make their homes more cheerful, and in every way contribute an earnest effort toward making life the better for living.”

These goals could be reached, he explained, through the unified, economic and social power of the workers. “Through the development, the organization, and exercise of this economic power, the workers themselves establish higher standards of living and work.” Giving employers a streamlined well-trained work force through a partnership, not through oppression and degradation, the employer is entitled to a profit, and the workers are entitled to a life.

Yes, those century-old words and thoughts still matter greatly today. Samuel Gompers would surely be outraged by the recent comments of Paul LePage, the Republican governor of Maine, who wants to put children back in the factories. Maine’s child labor restrictions date all the way back to 1847, but here in 2014, LePage is advocating putting children as young as 12 to work. Even worse, he said he would allow employers to pay them less than the minimum wage. The unthinkable could become real again if we let guys like Governor LePage undo what past generations of unified workers and enlightened employers accomplished together.

A half century after Samuel Gompers, labor leader George Meany saw it the same way:  “The basic goal of labor will not change. It is, as it has always been, and I am sure always will be, to better the standards of life for all who work for wages and to seek decency and justice and dignity for all Americans.”

He added: “Labor never quits. We never give up the fight, no matter how tough the odds, no matter how long it takes.”

These profound words from the great labor figures of the past remain as true and relevant as ever today.  The journey never ends and the job is never finished.



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