By Rev. David L. Ostendorf
I grew up in a baby boomer family with union roots as deep as prairie grass. When my father and his brothers left the farm in the ‘30s, organized labor provided them good, life-long jobs that propelled their families into the middle class and offered opportunities they had never dreamed of. After thirty years as a local and national union leader, my father left the shop floor to serve as an International Representative of the American Flint Glass Workers Union for his last fifteen years. He was a union organizer through and through, and union blood runs thick in my veins.
The past thirty years of corporate dominance and anti-labor public policy has been disastrous for American workers whose collective memory of the benefits of organized labor has faded dramatically. Beginning with the Reagan era the industrial infrastructure of the economy was dismantled, union contracts and unions themselves were broken, and millions of workers were left to fend for themselves without collective representation. The massive mold shop and adjacent glass plant that once employed my father and some five thousand other workers is gone, leveled to the ground in one of countless rust belt cities that have barely survived the decades-long onslaught; his union merged in 2003 with the United Steelworkers of America.
There is no looking back, however, except to the degree that we learn from it—and there is but one lesson to be learned: organizing. If low-wage American workers are to move up and out of the deep trenches of corporate dominance they must organize and be organized. Labor unions themselves have to shake off the past—as they are doing—and adjust more rapidly and creatively to the difficult challenges of the new century, in concert with new allies in communities equally wracked by corporate power. But even more so, communities, community leaders, and workers themselves must step up to the realities of the day and challenge those economic and political forces that would continue to drain them of tax revenues; good, safe, well-paying jobs; and attainable financial benefits that will, indeed, lift all boats.
The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) would provide the kind of organizing breakthrough needed today and in the days ahead. Corporations and their allies despise the Act. Countless companies that have perfected union-busting tactics have disingenuously rediscovered democracy in their advocacy of the secret ballot that would compel workers to vote only at the ballot box for union representation instead of checking a card indicating their desire for it. Millions have been poured into the political battle that, if won by corporate interests, would insure the long-running, Reagan-inspired assault on organized labor and the relentless impoverishment of low-wage workers. The power relationship between corporations and unions today is about as balanced as Fox News. EFCA must be passed if the workforce serving this nation—and the nation itself—is to emerge from this disastrous recession and flourish once again.
Woody Guthrie’s old lines from The Union Maid aren’t sung much anymore and the days of Solidarity Forever are a distant memory. Not a problem. Domestic workers, janitors, service industry, restaurant, packinghouse, bakery, clothing, and field workers are finding strength in new songs, new organizing, new hope, while older unions—auto, transport, steel, electrical, communications, mineworkers—are picking up new stanzas for a new age… and none too soon. EFCA will help assure that workers’ right to organize will not be further abridged: it’s time for a new song as powerful as the old ones.