Article

June 25, 2004
Washington, D.C.

Here in Washington, when people get together to discuss the labor movement it usually has to do with one thing…politics:

  • which candidates unions are backing, or
  • what legislation they’re promoting, or
  • how labor’s sizing up nominees for Federal boards, commissions and judgeships.

But there’s a far more important conversation that doesn’t happen nearly as often.

It’s about how unions and the collective bargaining process are essential to restoring what I sometimes call the American compact.

The belief that no one who works hard should ever – ever – have to live in poverty.

It’s the understanding that every worker deserves to be treated fairly with the dignity and the respect God intended.

That’s fundamental to the American compact — and as basic to who we are as the Declaration of Independence.

And that’s why we’re here today.

In fact, between today and July 4, union families across America are planning to celebrate Independence Day with a National Workplace Week of Action.

They’ll be distributing worksite fliers comparing the presidential candidates’ positions on workers’ freedom to form unions and bargain collectively.

Why?

Because they understand the same thing we do.

It’s that at a time when millions of families are struggling to stay in the middle class — and others are convinced they’ll never be able to join it — a growing, vibrant labor movement is fundamental to restoring the American compact.

  • It’s because we understand the stunning impact collective bargaining still has on workers’ wages.
  • It’s because we know how union contracts help lift families out of poverty.
  • It’s because we know union representation is essential for workers to win the quality, affordable health care families need.

And we’re here because we understand that, today, the incredible opportunity collective bargaining can offer is slipping through America’s fingers.

And our entire nation is paying the price.

In 1982, the ratio between the earnings of an average worker and CEOs was 42 – to – 1.

As of last year that ratio had soared to 300 – to – 1.

The average worker earned $517 per week.

The pay for the average CEO of a large company? More than $155,000 a week!

Again, that’s $155,000 a week!

In other words the average CEO makes more in ten minutes than an average worker earns in a week!

It’s not a coincidence that the gulf between CEO pay and workers paychecks has been expanding while union density has been shrinking.

Instead it’s one of the reasons why.

We know that union contracts raise worker wages and benefits by about 28%.

And we also know that the workers who stand to benefit the most are those who today are earning the least: minority members… women… high school grads… people working in less skilled jobs.

It’s true that raising wages depends on businesses becoming more innovative and that workers being productive.

But it’s also true that, for the first time since World War II, the productivity gains and GDP growth of this recovery are going exclusively to corporate profits and not to wages and benefits.

That means that, at the end of the day, what we’ll be left with is an America where a handful of CEOs are able to step inside the winner’s circle, while the rest of us are trapped on the outside looking in.

Yet despite the incredible, positive impact collective bargaining can have on our nation’s future; too many policymakers – from both parties – prefer to see unions as a relic of America’s past.

They make the mistake of forgetting that there’s only one reason why jobs in the auto industry…or the aerospace industry… or telecommunications came to offer middle class wages and great benefits.

It wasn’t because the CEOs at General Motors or Boeing or Ma Bell wanted to do it.

No: it was because workers organized and joined the UAW…the Machinists…and the CWA and bargained for decent wages and working conditions.

Collective bargaining became the guarantor of the American compact.

It enabled workers to see doctors – and it enabled their children to become doctors.

It allowed workers to buy homes. To buy cars. To send their kids to school. And, eventually, to retire with dignity.

It built the great American middle-class

And just as collective bargaining transformed low wage work into middle class jobs once before, we’re here to say that – given a chance – the labor movement can do it again.

It has to.

Not only to respond to the needs of workers today, but for years to come.

As the new economy continues to take shape, unions can become the framework for training, retraining — and placing – millions of workers who now are at risk of being left behind.

As more men and women join the ranks of the contingent workforce, unions alone have the potential for winning the economic security that temps and freelancers and part-timers desperately need.

As Americans continue to move from employer to employer over the course of their working lives unions can become the institution that makes portability in health benefits and pensions a reality.

But the bottom line is that collective bargaining won’t – and can’t – live up to its promise unless we first restore the right of workers to organize.

And that’s what we’re talking about today.

Because the simple truth is that, right now, in the year 2004, workers who attempt to organize unions face a greater risk than their grandparents did in 1954.

And if you know anyone who doubts that all they have to do is look at their friendly, neighborhood Wal-Mart store.

Wal-Mart– the nation’s biggest employer – the nation’s biggest corporation. A company which, last year, reported $9.1 billion dollars in income.

And what do they pay their workers?

On average less than $9 an hour.

Oh sure, they offer health care benefits, but they cost too much for most of its workers to buy.

Do Wal-Mart workers need a union?

Sure they do. But what did Wal-Mart do when workers in the meat department at one of its stores in Texas organized?

They shut the whole department down.

Today, union supporters at Wal-Mart are routinely harassed, intimidated and fired.

And not only is the federal government not doing a damned thing to stop it, but a few weeks ago Dick Cheney went to Wal-Mart’s headquarters to personally praise the company as a model employer!

But when Wal-Mart abuses its employees it’s not only those workers and their families who suffer. The rest of us do, too.

Who pays when Wal-Mart workers have no choice but to take their families to hospital emergency rooms for routine care?

We do. All of us.

You know, in Georgia Wal-Mart managers were trained to instruct employees to apply for health benefits for their kids through the state’s SCHIP program.

10,000 of those children were found to be eligible and were enrolled.

The cost to taxpayers?

$6.6 million annually.

Middle class families have to foot the bill because Wal-Mart won’t.

You know, I was really glad to see that Wal-Mart is going to have to go to the bar of justice to answer for the way it’s mistreated women employees.

But I’ll tell you something, I’ll be even happier when Wal-Mart goes to the bargaining table to negotiate the fair contract its workers have earned!

But you and I know it’s not just Wal-Mart.

We’re now faced with the worst epidemic of union busting and worker abuse since the 1920s – and no industry is immune.

Today, one of every four private sector workers who tries to organize is fired.

Today, when faced with the prospect of workers organizing no fewer than half of all employers threaten to shut down.

And, today, if you’re lucky enough win your right to union representation: there’s only a one in three chance your boss will refuse to ever sit down and negotiate a contract.

But don’t take my word for it. Just listen to Rita Chitwood and Lori Gay.

They’ll tell you first hand what happens when a worker in this country dares to exercise her legal right to organize.

And, unless we stand up now, it’s only going to get worse.

This month, the conservative appointees to the National Labor Relations Board announced that they’re taking aim at card-check recognition: the fairest and fastest process for workers to demonstrate they want a union.

Card check is the alternative to workers waiting months – even years – for a representation election.

Well, I think I speak for everyone on our panel today when I say that America doesn’t need an NLRB that’s in the business weakening card-check recognition – we need an NLRB that’s fighting to strengthen it!

Because a strong, growing, effective labor movement isn’t only in Rita’s interest or Lori’s interest – it’s in everyone’s interest.

It’s about rebuilding the American middle class.

It’s about renewing the American compact.

Cesar Chavez once observed that: “”When you have people together who believe in something very strongly – whether it’s religion or politics or unions – things happen.”

Well, we’re here today because we believe in an America:

Where each worker is respected.

Where all workers live in dignity.

Where no worker suffers in poverty.

And where every worker has a voice.

And we are committed to doing whatever it takes making that happen.

Thank you.

John Podesta is the president and chief executive officer of the Center for American Progress.

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