Commentary: Debate Will Reinvigorate Labor Movement


The media has made much lately of the internal struggles within organized labor. Indeed some pundits have prematurely (and foolishly) pronounced its imminent demise. Be assured, nothing could be further from the truth.

Painful as it is, this debate about membership growth and political action is reinvigorating the labor movement as never before. Though the split within the AFL-CIO is regrettable, it is a temporary jolt. This is because unions are a positive presence in our social fabric. They will always exist. Put simply, they play a vital and positive role in our social, economic and political systems.

Unions have made life better for all working Americans. They helped pass laws to end child labor, establish the eight-hour day, protect workers’ safety and health, create Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance and the minimum wage. Today unions must fight to halt the erosion of these hard-won rights.

At full strength unions balance the disparity in power between employer and employee. Wherever workers are abused, exploited, neglected or ill-treated, their union stands with them. Whenever a working mother is fired because she was forced to miss work due to a sick child, her union will be there. Whenever a man crippled by a work-related injury is terminated, his union will be there. Wherever workers desire to exercise their legal right to organize together to defend against an abusive employer, unions will be there.

Unions benefit all working people by setting the bar for wages, benefits and dignity in the workplace. They will be there to obtain better health care coverage for all workers, union or non-union. They will be there to demand respect and dignity for all employees. They will be there to force the employer to pay livable wages for all working men, women and families. The unions will be there to fully participate in the political arena to elect real leaders who truly respect family, religious, and American ideals. Indeed, the promise and the future of our great democracy lie with our unions and within the labor movement. Moreover, the promulgation of democracy on a global level depends on the worldwide dissemination of labor’s values and principles.

The labor movement lives on. It will evolve and adapt to meet the experiences of our age. We will organize here and abroad. We will reach out to all who need fair wages, real health care, and tangible respect and dignity on the job. The simple truth is that workers who join existing unions or form new one receive a better wage package. They take home more money at the end of the week to support themselves and their families.

Unorganized American workers have endured enough. They know they deserve better and are preparing to fight back. The ranks of organized labor are about to swell dramatically as these workers seek solidarity. They will be welcomed with open arms. Their families will be rewarded with a better life. Their children and their country will possess a better future.

This Labor Day, Minnesota workers enjoyed a well-deserved day of rest. ASFCME Council 5 salutes them and our predecessors who won the rights we now enjoy. We urge all workers to join us to stop the erosion of those rights.

Clifford Poehler is treasurer of AFSCME Council 5, a union representing 40,000 public and non-profit employees in Minnesota.