Former U.S. Congressman Pat Williams has called unions "America's most important institution." Now, as unions come under attack in Ohio, Indiana, Idaho and Wisconsin, Williams offers a history lesson on just how vital organized labor is to the country.
You can read his entire column here:
Labor unions and workers are in the news. You remember them—the people who brought you the weekends.
Under threat from anti-union Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, Idaho, and Indiana, America’s workers are fighting against attempts to take away their long-held right to negotiate salary and benefits with their employers.
In these difficult economic times, negotiation—collective bargaining—is necessary if our businesses as well as state and local governments are to cut costs in response to the recession. America’s union workers are both willing and very well prepared to negotiate. During hard times, unions have understood and negotiated wages that again and again relieved the economic burdens on our businesses. Examples of labor’s reasonable negotiations are everywhere. When the Chrysler Company was facing bankruptcy 25 years ago, it was the United Auto Workers union and its members that negotiated millions of dollars of reductions in their own salary and benefits. Union workers saved that company. Yes, government also stepped in but, unlike the workers, provided only loans to Chrysler, which, by the way have been paid back to the government with interest. The UAW union members did not expect and have not received a dime of payback from Chrysler.
The same generous labor attitude has also rescued our economy in the current Great Recession. Workers, who are not responsible for today’s economic crises, nonetheless have collectively bargained reductions of hundreds of millions of dollars in wages, benefits and pension give backs to the beleaguered auto and airline industries. The same is true in state and local governments throughout the country. Here in Montana our public workers are in the third year of a salary freeze they negotiated. Oh, yes, union workers know how to negotiate and do it fairly—after all, they invented the process.
Collective bargaining has a valued American history. In the 1930s, workers’ wages began to rise, benefits were added, and national prosperity became widespread. For fifty years from the 1930s through the ‘70s, union membership soared from 10% to 35% of the workforce. Inequality among our people was significantly reduced and the great American middle class consumer was not only profitable for business but was also the envy of the world.
So, how is it that these workers—our friends and neighbors here and around the country—are so vilified by some? It began in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan and many of his appointees who were viciously anti-labor, including his Chief of Staff John Sununu, the former Republican Governor of New Hampshire, and the Secretary of Labor Raymond Donovan. That assault has continued throughout the ensuing 30 years. The anti-union campaign has been abetted and paid for by some of the biggest corporations and their billionaire buddies. Just two of the most recent examples are the union-busting Wal-Mart company and the Koch brothers, Charles G. and David H. of Texas, whose wealth is reported at $17.5 billion apiece. The less each worker gets the more is left for Wal-Mart, the Koch Industries and others…all the while our nation moves increasingly toward frightening economic inequalities.
So here we are with unionized workers under all-out attack from those who have continually discredited the record of America’s organized workforce. Labor has a grand record of American accomplishment including: the five-day work week, Social Security, minimum wage, vacation time, child labor laws, Medicare, and, not the least of all, the world’s once upon a time strongest middle class.
Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at The University of Montana.