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September 18, 2009

Labor Pains

(Photos by Robin Holland)

In this week’s JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with labor experts Michael Zweig and Bill Fletcher about the prospects for organized labor in the United States.

An annual Gallup poll conducted in August delivered sobering news to supporters of organized labor, finding that public approval of unions has declined to the lowest point in more than seventy years since the poll began:

“Gallup finds organized labor taking a significant image hit in the past year. While 66% of Americans continue to believe unions are beneficial to their own members, a slight majority now say unions hurt the nation's economy. More broadly, fewer than half of Americans -- 48%, an all-time low -- approve of labor unions, down from 59% a year ago... The 48% of Americans now approving of unions represents the first sub-50% approval since Gallup first asked the question in the 1930s. The previous low was 55%, found in both 1979 and 1981... There has been an even larger jump in the percentage saying labor unions mostly hurt the U.S. economy, from 36% in 2006 to 51% today.”

Michael Zweig said that organized labor has become overly willing to accommodate power rather than challenge it:

“The labor movement had a very militant, very aggressive stance in the '30s, '40s, '50s that challenged capital [and] that got tremendous benefits... Let's not forget, the labor movement is what got us the eight hour day and Social Security and all the other things that we think are so very important, but are just natural. That came out of a labor movement that was led and fueled by people who understood that there was antagonism, that there was a battle that they were involved in. This was not just, 'let's sit down and have lunch and figure out what's the best thing to do for America.' This was, 'here's a group of people who run the country and run businesses, and they have a certain set of interests and they do not have our interests at heart...' We have to be organized and be a contrary force that's a real force, that isn't just a debating society, that doesn't just have resolutions that it passes.”

Bill Fletcher said that organized labor needs to foster a broad social justice movement that looks beyond individual workplaces in order to gain more mass support:

“The question for organized labor is whether or not it can actually become a class movement, a movement of workers, and not simply unions representing people in different workplaces because I think that speaks to some of the anger that’s out there among workers who feel that they’re unrepresented [and] that the society is crushing them. They’re looking for a vehicle. They’re looking for someone to be their champion, someone to channel their anger. If it’s not unions, my fear is that right-wing populists are going to just grab onto this... We have leaders now that are paying more attention to getting access to political leaders or holding hands with the head of Wal-Mart rather than actually getting and inspiring workers, irrespective of whether they’re our members right now, to engage in a struggle for justice.”

What do you think?

  • In your view, why has organized labor been losing the public’s confidence?

  • What role, if any, should labor unions play in movements for social and economic change? Explain.

  • Do you think labor unions have historically been good for America’s economy? Are they good for it today? Why or why not?


  • June 13, 2008

    The American Dream In Reverse?

    (Photos by Robin Holland)

    Are we living in a second gilded age? Yes, according to historian Steven Fraser, one of Bill Moyers’ guests on the JOURNAL this week.

    “Basically, we left the financial marketplace largely unregulated – a tendency which had begun under Reagan and continued at an accelerated pace all through the years since Reagan, including under the Clinton administration... When push comes to shove, businessmen and their financial enablers may talk the talk about the free market. But when times get tough, they turn to the government to bail them out... That is this close, almost incestuous relationship between business and government.”

    Bill Moyers also spoke with columnist Holly Sklar about the difficulties many workers face in trying to earn a living wage. She said:

    “We’ve been living the American dream in reverse... Adjusting for inflation, average wages are lower than they were in the 1970s. Our minimum wage, adjusting for inflation, is lower than it was in the 1950s. One of the things going on is that income and wealth inequality have gone back to the 1920s. We are back at levels that we saw right before the Great Depression.”

    On the ground in Los Angeles, the JOURNAL introduced Jaron Quetel, a young union member struggling to make ends meet. He said:

    “Working the best job I’ve ever had in my whole life, I’m still a breath away from drowning. I’m $20 away from being on the street. I am one car payment away from being re-poed. I’m barely surviving. I’m leading a substandard lifestyle because I make substandard wages... If I wasn’t trying, if I was a screw-up, if I was taking advantage of things, I couldn’t complain. But what more can I do at this point?”

  • Are you feeling pinched by today’s economy? Are people in your community?
  • What economic policies would you like to see put into place? Do you expect politicians to enact any of them?

    [Please note we have provided a list of sites related to clean elections and you can find sites and research related to economic disparity and the work of Holly Sklar.]


  • August 3, 2007

    A New American Dream?

    It was James Truslow Adams who first coined the term "The American Dream" in his book THE EPIC OF AMERICA written in 1931. He writes that the American dream is:

    "...that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.

    It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."

    But Barbara Ehrenreich, who has lived, worked and fought along side low-wage workers has witnessed the growing disparity of wages between the rich and poor. The hopes and dreams of many of the workers she's been hearing from seem to differ from the definition above. Says Ehrenreich:

    "There was one woman who said something to me that was so poignant. Speaking of her hopes for the future, she said, 'My big wish would be to have a job which if I missed work one day, like for a child home sick or something, I would still be able to buy groceries for the next day.' And I thought, yeah, that's quite a hope."

    How would you define the American Dream?

  • Has it changed for you over time?
  • Do you think your children or even your grandchildren will define it the same way?

    Photo: Robin Holland


  • June 15, 2007

    When One Becomes Two...

    Both Andy Stern and Grace Lee Boggs agree that when active, informed citizens band together with common cause, they can make a world of change:


    I always listen to Margaret Mead who says never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. In fact, it's the only thing that ever has...

    ...We have seen incredible acts of courage and heroism by very small groups of people like in the civil rights movement...but we don't want small answers anymore. We don't want small changes.


    I believe that we are at the point now, in the United States, where a movement is beginning to emerge... the present moment, is demanding that instead of just complaining about these things, instead of just protesting about these things, we begin to look for, and hope for, another way of living. I see the signs in the various small groups that are emerging all over the place to try and regain our humanity in very practical ways.

    In your community, do you see signs of a grassroots revolution emerging?

    We invite you to tell your stories about groups that you've joined or witnessed in your local communities that speak to this notion of informed citizens effecting change, one small seed at a time.

    Photos: Robin Holland


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