At the heart of American values is power to the common man. The idealism surrounding the concepts of democracy and unions are very closely linked. Central to both is that the power is in the hands of the people. As one defines the relevancy of unions both past and present, I think a fundamental idea is that unions provide the essential human right of justice. Unions ensure a necessary check that balances the power in the interaction between worker and employer. The very ability of people to band together to create something more powerful is central to the ideas of unions. Though many companies, large or small, would treat workers in a just manner and with respect, many others would exploit individuals to the fullest extent. Unions are a guard against this possibility of tyranny.
Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor from 1886 to his death in 1924, said at the AFL convention in 1904, "Today more than ever...the capitalist class, or the worst element in that class, stand as a constant opposition to anything that we demand, and also as a constant force to try and invade the rights we have already secured, and to take away from us the advantages we have acphrved". When you compare Mr. Gompers comments in 1904 and look at what has happened to labor in the past twenty years, things really haven't changed much with regard to the anti-union movement within the business community. While corporate profits rise to an all time high, unions have to work harder than ever to safeguard these rights and benefits which they have earned. From the 1900's forward, it was unions that secured the forty-hour workweek, healthcare for families, a livable wage, and a safe work environment. The image of a single person standing by his or herself against a corporation is a daunting prospect. With the idea that we are not a collection of individuals, but rather a cohesive group united for the advancement of the interests of the working man comes a net security promoting fairness.
Today, the actions of unions are much more diverse and individualized than those original groups. Unjust termination, harassment and compensation are in the scope of the arena that unions operate in today. Increasing attention to the issue of outsourcing labor to foreign nations is of growing concern to modern unions. However the core idea surrounding unions is still as prominent as the day the first union was formed. Justice in the workplace is being served down to the individual level because the power that unions have and their ability to use it for justice of the individual man.
Politics has become an increasingly important vehicle for unions in this century. In 1935, the National Labor Relations Board was created by Congress to govern relations between unions and employers in the private sector. There was a history of bipartisan support throughout Democratic and Republican administrations from President Roosevelt to President Carter. The bipartisanship spirit came to a crashing halt during the administration of Ronald Reagan. As president, Reagan crushed the hopes of striking air traffic controllers, he also appointed National Labor Relations Board Consultants who had a history of being union-busting attorneys.
An important function of unions today is the need to mobilize their members to participate in the political process to capture the Presidency and Congress so that we can restore balance for working America. Union members need to stand tall as union members did in the early nineteen hundreds and demand that their collective voices be heard. Complacency with the current affairs of our government is an ever-present danger to unions. Only by maintaining constant vigilance against those powers that would take away workers rights will we move forward the agenda of working class America.