We Need Unions Now More Than Ever

Categories: Labor

A Labor Day Message from National President J. David Cox Sr.

As the nation marks another Labor Day, there is little to celebrate for many workers in this country. Millions of Americans work two or more jobs yet remain in poverty, thanks to substandard wages and benefits.

Most federal employees enjoy the benefits of belonging to a union, but most American workers have faced overwhelming employer opposition to exercising those same rights. Corporations have used their financial might and undue influence in Congress to weaken laws that are supposed to protect workers and to wage expensive battles aimed at defeating every attempt by employees to form unions.

As the old saying goes, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.

In the late 1800s, workers who toiled for the Pullman Company outside Chicago suffered countless abuses at the hands of robber baron turned company owner George Pullman. Pullman literally owned the town where his employees lived, and he kept them under his thumb by keeping wages low and rents high. Employees worked 16-hour days yet couldn’t make ends meet. Sound familiar?

Workers banded together in the American Railway Union and shut down the company. Nearly every other railway worker in America refused to handle Pullman cars in solidarity with their striking brothers. When the military and U.S. Marshals were called in to break the strike, resulting in the death of 13 strikers and injuries to dozens more, the American people were outraged. The voice of labor was so united that the federal government responded by codifying a day of national honor for American organized labor and its achievements, in an attempt to pacify labor activists.

In the ensuing years, however, the American public has lost sight of why unions still matter, and we as unionists have failed in answering the question.

The facts are on our side. Between 1947 and 1973, at the height of unionism in this country, productivity increased by 97 percent and employee compensation increased by 95 percent. Since then, as employees and politicians made it more difficult to organize, productivity has increased by 80 percent, while employee compensation has risen just 11 percent.

As we mark another Labor Day, let us recall that this day was earned through great collective action. The Pullman Porters serve as but one reminder that American labor has had to—and must continue to—fight for every victory. As the leader of the later Porters’ Strike, A. Philip Randolph said, “Justice is never given; it is exacted and the struggle must be continuous for freedom is never a final fact, but a continuing evolving process to higher and higher levels of human, social, economic, political and religious relationship.”

Labor Day is no gift. If working people want better wages, then they will have to stand together just like Americans did in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s and demand better wages.

J. David Cox Sr.
National President, AFGE


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