Elmer Smith: On Labor Day, don't forget the movement

Posted: September 02, 2011

A PANEL of experts spent an hour of TV time last month debating this weighty issue: Is organized labor really a special interest?

Let me take a crack at that one:

You're damned right it's special!

If we remembered what it was like for workers before the labor movement, or had a clear vision of how many American workers would take it on the chin without a movement, we'd know how special it is.

As we gorge ourselves with burgers and beer on this Labor Day weekend, we'd do well to give a second thought to the movement that gave us the 40-hour week, an eight-hour day and, yes, weekends.

There was no such thing as a weekend in 1882 when the first Labor Day was celebrated. Blue collar workers hit the clock Monday through Saturday. If they got Sunday off, they were lucky.

"Labor bought the weekend," said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of teachers.

"Unions fought for things that the entire society benefitted from, whether they were union members or not. Child-labor laws, disability payments. You don't have to be in a union to get those things."

But you wouldn't have them without a labor movement. We wouldn't have time-and-a-half for overtime or unemployment benefits or health insurance or many of the workplace safety rules in place today.

Without the persistent prodding of the labor movement, there would be no Social Security or Medicare. Organized labor has backed universal health care even though it's not in its self-interest to have government provide a benefit that made union membership more attractive.

You'd have to be a poor student of history to believe that American industrialists would have provided any of those benefits on their own.

If you want to know what big business sees as fair wages and acceptable working conditions, look at what they pay their overseas workers. Textile workers employed by American multinational corporations in Korea and China and South America work for a fraction of what workers are paid even in so-called "right-to-work" states.

But many of us are poor enough students of history to believe that we no longer need to organize in our own interests, or that when we do it harms the American economy. That's what politicians mean when they say that labor unions are a special interest. Respected political figures haul water for these multinationals and mischaracterize U.S. workers without fear of reprisal because most Americans have no idea what the labor movement means to them.

Republican leaders who are opposed to cutting the payroll tax that is paid by even the poorest U.S. workers will fight to the death to keep tax breaks in place for the richest Americans.

Even with some 18 million U.S. workers on unemployment rolls, some elected officials are bold enough to disparage them publicly. U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch equates jobless benefits with welfare payments. Hatch had the gall to propose drug-testing for people who apply for unemployment or welfare benefits.

Gov. Corbett, running in a historically pro-labor state, didn't think twice before suggesting that unemployment wouldn't be as high if more people would just get off their butts.

"The jobs are there," Corbett said, "but if we keep extending unemployment, people are just going to sit there."

Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans are pushing for a "repatriation tax holiday" that would give multinational firms an extra tax incentive to bring overseas profits back into the U.S. economy, and a Democratic president is said to be considering it. Any company that has tried to keep its workforce in America would find itself at an even greater disadvantage.

This despite the fact that the U.S. tax code already includes an offset that allows U.S. companies to reduce their U.S. taxes by the amount they pay to their foreign host countries.

What makes this so bizarre is that the same American workers may see their taxes subsidize companies that replace them with foreign workers.

So, yes, labor is a special interest. It's a good idea to remember that this weekend as we enjoy the burgers and beer and benefits it bought us.


Send email to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: www.philly.com/ElmerSmith

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