The labor movement lives

George Gresham | 5/3/2018, 11:52 a.m.
The labor movement lives
George Gresham

May is Labor History Month. May 1, an international workers’ holiday that originated in the U.S., commemorates labor’s many contributions to our nation. Unions, famed for giving us the eight-hour workday and weekends off, have also raised wages, improved working conditions and increased job security. Also, they are the major force against economic inequality and for democracy.

The labor movement, beginning with President Ronald Reagan’s assaults in the 1980s, together with increased globalization, deregulation and automation, has suffered serious setbacks. Today our movement might be down, but it certainly is not out. That is especially true among civil service workers, who continue to battle not only for their livelihoods but also for essential services important to us all.

Leading the charge have been teachers and other public-school workers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Colorado, Oklahoma and Arizona—five states where wages are generally lower than the national average. Low wages, poor benefits and inadequate working conditions, fueled in most cases by crippling funding reductions, have spurred successful strikes and other job actions.

Contrary to mainstream media reporting, strikers’ concerns extended beyond wages and benefits, and they received strong support from parents and students. The West Virginia teachers, who won all five of their strike demands, held out until raises were granted to all state employees. In all the states, teachers have demanded reforms such as funding for books and supplies, restrictions on class size and enriched after-school programs.

Higher education workers also are demanding fairer compensation for their work. Last month, Harvard research and teaching assistants voted to join the United Automobile Workers. Their victory, which will bring 5,000 workers into the UAW, is among the largest among university workers in the private sector. Also, hundreds of unionized graduate student workers struck Columbia University last month over the university’s unwillingness to negotiate a contract.

The fight for a $15 minimum wage and for the right to join a union is one of today’s key battles against economic inequality and corporate greed. The movement, which is majority women, is an example of how labor can forge alliances with workers outside the traditional labor movement, such as workers’ centers and community organizations, especially those that are committed to social and economic justice.

Each year we set aside the second Sunday in May to celebrate and honor mothers, many of whom are among the most exploited workers in our nation. The holiday began as a plea for peace by Julia Howard Howe, a 19th century suffragist and abolitionist. Howe’s South Boston home, which she shared with her husband, abolitionist Samuel Gridley Howe and their six children, was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Today, the leadership of women is central to the fight to loosen the grip of the extremists and Trump minions who have captured both houses of Congress, the White House and far too many state houses. Women were responsible for perhaps the largest demonstrations in our nation on the 45th president’s first day in office. And they have kept up the pressure since. Also, they are beginning to understand that women of color, who bear the heaviest burden, must be included in the leadership of the fightback.