The Role of Unions in the Class War
by Richard Kamei, Guild 1st Vice President
In the current political, social, and economic climate, it is imperative for the labor movement to realize its critical role in preserving all the gains that were won through the blood and sweat of our brothers and sisters in the past. Unfortunately, to a large extent, organized labor has lost the membership-driven militancy of its roots. This cannot be allowed to continue in the current situation, where an all-out war has been declared against organized labor. Moreover, the current crisis in our economic system requires that the labor movement, along with other movements for social justice, unite to raise awareness of the root causes of our dire situation and provide the structure and institutions to achieve the needed social transformation.
The crucial role that labor unions played in improving the lives of the working person cannot be overstated. We do not have to look too far back in our history to recall the inhumane conditions under which workers had to toil. The miserable conditions, although not yet fully overcome for all workers, were ameliorated to a large extent due to the efforts of an effective labor movement. We must never forget the courage and sacrifices made by our predecessors. It was the workers who unionized and supported the labor movement that led union workers, as well as other workers, to be able to enjoy such things as safer working conditions, reasonable work hours, lunch breaks, vacations, decent salaries, pensions, health care coverage, and the right to collectively bargain. Any and every worker should know and cherish these benefits, which were won through hard fought battles. The Haymarket affair, which is commemorated every May 1 throughout the world, is a reminder of the sacrifices made to achieve better working conditions.
For more information about the Haymarket affair, go to: memory.loc.gov/ammem/award98/ichihtml/hayhome.html
As a key opposing force to the interests of the capitalist class, organized labor, in both the private and public sectors, has been relentlessly attacked as of this writing. The ideological war against unions has been relatively effective. Our current economic crisis has increased these attacks, as those who are anti-union represent the demands of organized labor as selfish and unrealistic, as opposed to the fact that most unions are fighting to maintain livable wages, benefits, and decent working conditions that all workers should have. Since the 1970s, the capitalist class has gone on the offensive to undermine unions. For example, many workers who attempted to organize at their workplace have been illegally fired. Earlier this year, we even witnessed the introduction of legislation in several states, led by Wisconsin and Ohio, to revoke collective bargaining rights of public employees. Fortunately, this ignited massive protests across the nation. As a hopeful sign, on Tuesday, November 8, 2011, residents of Ohio voted to repeal the law that restricted collective bargaining for public workers by a margin of 62 to 38. Furthermore, we have the possible beginnings of another movement in Occupy Wall Street and its many offshoots across the United States, not to mention economic and social justice movements taking place across the globe.
The roots of these movements amongst the masses can be found in understanding the fundamental flaws in our economic system. It is imperative for the unions, led by their membership, along with other organizations, to play a key role in educating the public about the inherent contradictions within capitalism that led to the crisis we are all experiencing now. As opportunities to invest in the production of commodities stagnated, speculative bubbles financed by massive debt became the method of profiteering pursued by the capitalist class. As in the case of expropriating surplus from the laborers under traditional production by denying the workers fair wages, growth through speculation driven by debt is also a method of exploiting the workers and the masses in general. Unfortunately, as in the past, these schemes, where speculative bubbles are created through massive debt, end in serious economic crises. The Savings and Loan scandal of the 1980s, the bursting of the Dot-com bubble of 2000 and the recent popping of the housing bubble in December 2007, are three relatively recent examples. And, as we know too well, the perpetrators of the actions that led to the crises are often bailed out, while the masses suffer tremendously.
If the systemic flaws within capitalism are not properly addressed, we will continue to see more economic crises in the future, and each time unions and others will be fighting tooth and nail to protect less and less. This situation is unacceptable for our future and those workers who will come after us. This is why we need our unions to transcend beyond protecting specific interests such as wages, benefits, and working conditions in a particular sector, and become truly active rank-and-file member-driven organizations. They must advocate and take action to achieve more substantive social changes. To be effective, it is imperative that unions from all the sectors unite with other organizations around common interests to bring about a social transformation benefitting the majority of people, as opposed to the current situation that benefits only a small percentage of the population. &
Richard T. Kamei
1st Vice President
Glendale College Guild, AFT 2276
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