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The heroic work of labor unions

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By Rick Howell

When the other columnist on this page wrote his “whiny teachers” column, he mistakenly gave union status to the state teachers association, a point on which he has since been corrected.
    But what stands out from that effort is his apparent contempt and loathing of the very concept of unions, a regrettable, even ignorant, attitude about so much of American history.
    To the extent that we have a middle class left today, it’s because of the work and sacrifices – often even leading to death – of  workers who insisted that they had a right to organize and bargain collectively.
    Our history is filled with their courage and dignity. Their work and their success built the modern American middle class. Workers enjoyed good wages and good benefits in the 20th century, and it was because of the victories of labor unions.
    Corporate power is so overwhelming in this country that only an organized labor force can possibly challenge it, and make it respect the people who do the work that’s necessary.
    No one ever put it better than John L. Lewis, the legendary leader of the United Mine Workers Association: “Without organization, you’re nothing more than a lone individual, without influence or recognition of any kind.”
    If you don’t believe that, test it sometime. Get your gander up, march into your boss’ office, and give him (and it’s almost always a “him,” isn’t it), your best case for why you should get a pay raise, and also, why you think you deserve better health care benefits (assuming you get them at all).
    We know how that little confrontation is likely to go, don’t we? Now imagine that you have the power of a union membership and leadership behind you when your union, representing you, is the one asking for that raise.
    It’s ironic that in a country so devoted to democracy and freedom, the one area of life where we daily participate in a dictatorship is in the workplace. It’s all about “the boss,” and if you don’t have the job security that union membership provides, you can be fired for just about anything.
    Surely, people in Bedford who remember the glory days of the Rubatex plant remember the important role played there by the rubber workers union, Local 240.
    My father belonged to that union and I remember the struggles it fought to get decent wages and benefits for the employees and their families. Again, it’s important to remember, corporations don’t “give” you anything out of the goodness of their hearts. Studies have shown in areas where unions have gotten higher wages, pay rates at non-union work sites have to pay more to keep up.
    Today, though, union membership in the private sector is at an all-time low, and conservative Republicans (always willing to do the bidding of Big Business) are trying to kill public sector unions. Membership has dropped largely because of the disappearance of the old smoke-stack industries, and because of technological changes in the economy.
    And, yes, I’ve heard of Jimmy Hoffa, and we all know there’s sometimes been corruption in unions. But unless you’ve forgotten the Enron scandal and numerous other corporate scandals, then you know that corruption is often present in any human endeavor.
    I suppose that people who have contempt for unions are under the illusion that the company that employs them loves them. But no one should be foolish.
    I don’t care what you are, a teacher, a policeman, a mechanic, a retail worker, whatever....you’re better off with a union. It’s the best way to fight for your share of the great pie that American corporations so want to keep for themselves and their CEOs.

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    Rick Howell, a Bedford native, can be reached by e-mail at RickDem117@gmail.com.