Remember who brought you the weekend


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The bumper sticker — you’ve all seen it: “The people who brought you the weekend — the Labor Movement” — is not just a poignant reminder about the roots of the lifestyle we take for granted. It’s also a testimony to the historical amnesia that afflicts Americans. But that amnesia is no accident.

American culture is awash in anti-unionism that effaces our history. In film, TV, and much news reporting, images of supposed union corruption and selfishness are ubiquitous.

Politicians make hay out of attacks on the teachers’ and public employee’s unions that are alleged to protect unproductive workers. Contracts negotiated in good faith by unionized public employees are now repeatedly challenged by governors, including Iowa Gov.-elect Terry Branstad. They accuse public employees, many of whom have seen their wages stagnate and their benefits cut while the incomes of the very wealthy climb, of defending their “privileges” in the face of diminishing public revenues. But these same elected officials refuse to consider raising taxes on the rich to maintain vital public services or support the real costs of quality education.

We are in the midst of a “jobless recovery” in which the official unemployment rate continues to hover just below 10 percent and in some communities and segments of the population (including graduating college students) is much higher. Many conservatives blame President Obama’s policies for keeping unemployment high because, they claim, businesses are worried sick about whether tax rates for the wealthy might go up 3 percentage points.

Actually, many business ideologues think high unemployment is not a bad thing because it forces wages downward, gives employers more flexibility in hiring, and weakens the capacity of unions to resist cutbacks in living standards of their members. With many job seekers and few jobs, employers can set new low standards of employment that in a robust labor market they could never get away with. For example, they can hire temporary workers with no benefits and limited organizing ability.

The role that unions have played in securing dignity and a respectable lifestyle for millions of American workers has largely been forgotten. Since the years immediately following World War II, the improvements union workers won through struggle and sacrifice (e.g., the eight-hour work day, weekends, sick leave, paid vacation) have been under attack. In a period of declining union membership, even the hard-won “weekend” is no longer secure.

Not many months ago, passage of the Employee Free Choice Act seemed possible. This law would have restored the right of workers to speedy unionization (originally guaranteed under the Wagner Act), whenever the choice of a majority of employees, based on signed cards, was demonstrated.

That right has been eroded. Instead, unions have been faced with a return to the days when employers routinely subverted union members’ democratic rights to union representation.

Employer propaganda, a weak economy, and a Congress and president who have lost the will to fight for union members’ rights have almost guaranteed that this legislation will not see the light of day.

Students need to defend not just their right to the weekend and a job that offers the promise of a better life but also the vital social programs that unions were so instrumental in winning for all of us — health-care reform, Social Security, unemployment compensation, Medicare, and Medicaid. The conservative/corporate attack machine targets unions because they know a vibrant labor movement is the main protector of these programs. They saturate the airwaves with anti-union hype and portray the right to a decent, well-paying job with good benefits and the dignity of having union representation as “socialism.”

We need to remember who brought us the weekend and fight for our right to keep it and other union-won benefits. We can do that by defending union workers and their right to collective bargaining. Union wages and benefits provide an essential lever for lifting the wages and the rights of all workers. Look around — if you see a picket line or workers bargaining for decent conditions of work (like TAs and RAs are now doing through their union, UE-COGs), reach out and express your support. They are fighting for all of us and for our weekends, too.

Shelton Stromquist, a University of Iowa history professor, specializes in U.S. labor and social history.

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