Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri. or Sat., Oct. 25, 26 or 27
This week is the 72nd anniversary of the 40-hour week taking effect as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act. It took unions decades to win that victory for all working people – longer than it subsequently took Big Business to demonize organized labor.
Longtime New York Times columnist Bob Herbert effectively summarizes the reality of misinformation contributing to some Americans acting against their own interests: “It’s amazing how much nonsense about unions is believed, and how little is really known about their purpose and proud history,” Herbert says. “A thriving union movement is crucial to the well-being of working men and women and to the overall health of our democratic way of life.”
Fortunately, Bill Fletcher Jr. – a veteran activist, scholar and writer – has put together a tidy list of the most frequent bits of nonsense, coupled with reasoned explanations why such myths are inaccurate.
“ ‘They’re Bankrupting Us!’ and 20 Other Myths about Unions,” from Beacon Press, is ably reported and amply filled with sources and references. A past employee of the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union and now with the American Federation of Government Employees, Fletcher draws from his experiences to define the myths. His de-bunking is as dispassionate as it is clear.
A listing of the myths shows how far the most common misinformation goes, but Fletcher refutes it with logic and law, clarification and common sense:
Myth 1: “Workers are forced to join unions, right?”
Myth 2: “Unions are bankrupting us and destroying the economy.”
Myth 3: “Unions are actually run by ‘labor bosses,’ aren’t they?”
Myth 4: “Public sector unions cause budget deficits, right?”
Myth 5: “Unions make unreasonable demands that result in lots of strikes!”
Myth 6: “Unions were good once, but we don’t need them any longer.”
Myth 7: “Unions are only needed by workers who have problems and get into trouble.”
Myth 8: “The union uses our money for political action and I have no say in the matter!”
Myth 9: “Unions hold me back from advancing, and if I join I will never be promoted.”
Myth 10: “Unions are corrupt and mobbed up!”
Myth 11: “Unions have a checkered history and were started by communists and other troublemakers.”
Myth 12: “Unions are all racist and people of color need not apply.”
Myth 13: “Unions have a history of sexism . . . what makes them better now?”
Myth 14: “Unions deal with wages, hours, and working conditions; what about other issues?”
Myth 15: “Yes, unions are good for their members, but they hurt the rest of us!”
Myth 16: “Unions and corporations are both too big and don’t really care about the worker.”
Myth 17: “Let’s face it, in a globalized world, unions are powerless.”
Myth 18: “Where do unions stand on immigrants – you either ignore them or you ignore the rest of us?”
Myth 19: “If unions are so good, why aren’t they growing?”
Myth 20: “Unions are so partisan; they always side with the Democrats, right?”
Myth 21: “If unions are so great, why aren’t more people around the world forming them?”
Fletcher’s said the “all-out war on unions” stems from 1981, when President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers, encouraging Big Business to trash the previous social contract that recognized unions and their role as part of the larger economic and social system.
Progressive author Jim Hightower sarcastically says, “Isn’t it curious that the loudest, most venomous voices against unions are the CEOs and Wall Streeters who profit by keeping America’s working families down and unions out?”
Fletcher has conceded that unions should do more to clean up their own houses, too.
“In unions, when dissent is crushed, growth is prevented,” he’s said, adding that opening unions to more democracy can’t be imposed from above but must grow from the rank and file.
One of the best, most surprising and touching comments in the book is from baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays. Addressing a 1972 Major League Baseball Players Association meeting discussing a possible strike, the great center fielder for the Giants and Mets said, “I know it’s hard being away from the game and our paychecks and our normal life. I love this game. It’s been my whole life. But we made a decision in Dallas to stick together, and until we’re satisfied, we have to stay together. This could be my last year in baseball, and if the strike lasts the entire season and I’ve played my last game, well, it will be painful. But if we don’t hang together, everything we’ve worked for will be lost.”
Ending his illuminating book, Fletcher closes with, “Let this be not our epitaph, but rather our call to battle.”