More than a century ago, working conditions in the U.S. were horrific. There were injuries, machines that maimed, wages that were withheld for stupid infractions of rules and a general uneasyness of holding onto a job, at all costs.
This kind of dehumanizing labor environment led to the rise of unions, which became the backbone of America creating a strong middle class that was the envy of the world.
Two such unions that came to the aid of the American worker were the International Ladies Garment Works Union (ILGWU) and the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Both became the standard bearers of labor unions after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911, in which 275 women died after becoming trapped inside the Lower East Side sweatshop in which they worked.
Both unions worked tirelessly following that tragedy to improve the working conditions of the American worker. But by the end of the 20th century, their power seemingly evaporated, much like the prized union jobs that fled this country to nations abroad.
Where was the ILGWU just 20 years ago when the garment industry was shipped out to South American and Asia? Where was the AFL/CIO as the shoe, furniture, watchmaking, toy, television and electronics plants also shut their doors? How did the United Auto Workers allow the automobile industry to be taken over by foreign countries?
In the last few weeks, news broadcasts have shown thousands upon thousands of demonstrators converging on the Wisconsin capital of Madison to protest their governor’s plan to take away their collective bargaining rights as part of costcutting efforts. Few of these kinds of protests were ever sounded as one American factory after another was shuttered and thousands of people were laid off.
As the number of union members shrunk, the union leaders instead turned to public sector workers. It was easy to convince politicians that the more civil service workers enrolled in unions, the more votes they could get.
So the unions took the easy way out and filled their diminishing ranks with teachers, police officers, firefighters and the ever-increasing ranks of clerks on every level of government.
Civil service jobs always had a stronger sense of security in the job market, but once the unions wrangled their way into the system—adding higher wages and extending benefits far exceeding the private sector—these jobs became the cream of the crop. The costs were naturally passed down to the taxpayers, and now they’re too high for most state and local governments to bear.
Instead of fighting to stop the hemmorhaging of manufacturing jobs, union leaders unionized the government—and managed to make things worse for everyone. Thousands more workers now stand to lose their jobs, vital services will be cut and our quality of life will suffer for it.
The unions are still needed, but not in the public sector. They need to go back to doing what they were designed to do: finding jobs for and protecting the American worker in private industry.
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