We Can Win the New Fight for Working Families
By Claude Cummings, Jr.
It has become traditional around Labor Day to reflect on the big accomplishments of the Labor movement. And make no mistake, we have accomplished a lot.
Most American workers, whether they belong to a union or not, don’t know that just a couple of generations ago there was no 40 hour work week or time-and-a-half for overtime. 60 to 80 hour weeks at regular wages were the norm. Children were put to work before they finished grade school. Critical employee benefits like health care and medical leave were barely concepts much less essential family protections gained through employment. These big wins were achieved by the Labor movement, but they benefit every family across the ideological and political spectrums. They aren’t just Labor victories; they are American victories.
This Labor Day, however, instead of just looking back with satisfaction, we should also look ahead with great urgency. American workers are in real trouble. Middle class wages in America have been flat for over 30 years. That’s right, 30 years with wages barely keeping up with the basic cost of living. Working families have been running in place instead of getting ahead, and too many of us aren’t even holding our place.
The middle-class has been shrinking, even while American workers have become more productive than ever. The fruits of our productivity are being gobbled up by just a very few at the very top. Studies show the gap between increased productivity by workers, and the real wages they are paid is almost $600 a week. So who’s benefitting from increased productivity? Well, maybe it is explained by the fact that the gap between income earned by average American workers and the compensation given to CEO’s is the largest in the world.
Our real challenge now is to fight back where it counts. It is not enough for union leaders to simply resolve to get tougher at the negotiating table or for union members to hold out longer for just a little more. These days, too many times, the real battle was waged and won or lost in the political arena, and we failed to show up in large enough numbers and well enough armed for the fight.
Special interests protecting the very few at the very top have been changing the rules of the game by investing billions in a political system that is devolving into crass pay-to-play. Corporate interests and mega-wealthy individuals now move independently of candidates and without oversight to control who gets elected and which policies they enact. The money is staggering. In the 2012 elections, national candidates spent a combined $7 billion dollars running for office. In 2016, national candidates will have to raise $1 billion just to be competitive.
To fight back, the labor movement has to move outside of just union business. We have to remember that the forces holding working Americans back and shrinking the middle class aren’t just targeting union members; their actions hurt all working families.
I’m proud that my union has realized that in order to fight back against the billionaire special interests, we have to build coalitions that go beyond our own membership. New alliances must form that bring together different unions along with people who may not hold a union card. It means getting registered to vote, getting others registered to vote, talking up our candidates and issues and calling out those who oppose working families. It means finding common ground and then taking action to defend it.
As Communications Workers of America Vice President and head of CWA’s Human Rights Department, I’m working diligently with men and women throughout our district and the country to bring CWA into these new coalitions and to build alliances outside of the traditional CWA boundaries. By understanding and adopting concerns of working families that may somewhat differ from our own, we win understanding and support for our own concerns. Moreover, we become large enough and strong enough to overcome the billionaire special interests now on the march.
Working Americans united to protect and strengthen the value of work and the path to opportunity have always been the greatest defense of the American dream. We’re being tested now in a new political environment to see if we still have the will to stand together and to protect each other.
So this Labor Day let’s not only remember and be proud of what we have done together. Let’s resolve to pass this test of our time – to stand together, work together and win the new fight underway for all working families.
Claude Cummings Jr. is Vice President of the Communications Workers of America and represents more than 60,000 workers in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri Oklahoma and Texas. He leads CWA’s human and civil rights work, and with CWA allies, engages in civil rights initiatives nationwide, especially around voting rights. He is a leading voice in state politics throughout the five-state district, especially in Texas and Missouri, a longtime community and civil rights leader, and a prominent member of the faith community. CWA represents 700,000 workers in telecommunications, media, airlines, public service and manufacturing.