Labor Day Laboring

As promised, a couple of good Labor Day reads:

From The New Republic, we’ve got this personal essay reflecting upon the cultural loss we’ve suffered in our weakened labor movement.

From The American Prospect, there’s this article detailing why a strong labor movement matters.  I’ll highlight my favorite paragraph for you now:

“A good job means one that pays enough to allow a family to buy or rent a decent home, put food on the table and clothes on their backs, afford health insurance and child care, send the kids to college, take a yearly vacation, and retire with dignity. A good job means that two parents don’t have to juggle three jobs to stay afloat, and that they still have time to spend with their kids.”

…To me, this is key.  In the decline of the labor movement, there’s been a dramatic decline of the quality of life.  We’re told that “labor market flexibility” and “cheap consumer goods” are what we have graduated to, that these are an improvement upon the crushing labor contracts of yore — and for some people, that may be true.  But for the majority of people, the lifestyle wrought by organized labor is still something to which they aspire, even as it becomes ever-rarer.

Another mistake frequently made in our discussions of labor is to limit it to manufacturing.  The truth is, organized labor can be an effective tool even amongst the very highly educated — witness the most high-profile labor strike in recent years in America, the 2008 writer’s strike, in which members of the Writer’s Guild of America struck and demonstrated so that their contracts might be updated to reflect technological changes.  Prior to the strike, writers received zero royalty payments from DVD or online sales of television programs.  Negotiations with studios failed, and the WGA — made up largely of college graduates, mostly from well-regarded schools — saw a strike as their last remaining option. 

So they struck.  And it worked.  Television studios haven’t gone out of business, or reduced their programming, because they now pay writers three cents in royalties per DVD sold.  Too often we associate unions with the decay of Detroit, rather than a vital and white-collar industry like entertainment — but it is at our peril.

It’s also at our peril to ignore the most disadvantaged workers in society, the most vulnerable, for whom strong labor laws are about the only things standing between them and modern-day slavery.  Alas, the decline in labor organization affects all classes, and the most vulnerable have had an even harder time than anyone in getting even the most basic of protections or wage increases.

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