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Timothy P. Lynch: Unions still needed today

Roundup: Historians' Take




Timothy P. Lynch, Ph.D., is a professor of history at the College of Mount St. Joseph and the author of "Strike Songs of the Depression."

We celebrate Labor Day 2009 during the worst economic times since the Great Depression. Last year at this time dark clouds gathered on the economic horizon. This year the rain is falling hard. Home foreclosures, bank failures, and rising unemployment are among the financial troubles that challenge our nation. As we face those problems, we also need to reconsider the role organized labor should play in our economy.

During the 1930s, at the depths of the Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act, securing for workers the right to join a union. No economic reform did more to grow the middle class than union representation. I know that not only as a historian who has studied the labor movement, but also from personal experience as the son of a union member.

Shortly after my father got out of the army following World War II, he joined the carpenters' union. For the rest of his long life, he was a dues-paying, card-carrying member of that union. And he was enormously proud of his membership. Indeed, when he died at the age of 94, there were only two requests my mother made for the preparation of his body for burial - that he have on the tie he wore the day they were married, and that on his lapel be affixed the 50-year pin that he had received from his local a few years earlier.

A gracious, soft-spoken man, few things raised his dander. But when someone questioned the need for labor unions, he understandably got hot under the collar. He knew in very real ways what union representation meant for him and his family.

My father never finished high school, but his three children each completed college, his youngest earned a doctorate. He grew up with his brothers and sisters in a crowded bungalow in a low-income neighborhood of Chicago. My brother, sister, and I grew up in a beautiful home my father built in an up-scale suburb. As a child, he often had to do without many of the material pleasures others enjoyed. My siblings and I never experienced one day of want in our lives.

What accounted for this dramatic change in fortunes? It was the wages, benefits, and working conditions that were secured through union membership. And his story is hardly unique.

When my father first entered the union in 1948, approximately one-third of the non-agricultural workforce in the United States carried a union card. With that strength in numbers, millions of American workers were able to achieve decent wages and middle-class status for the first time. Home ownership, a college education for their children, good benefits, including health insurance and a pension upon retirement, were all part of that upward movement.

Today, less than 10 percent of America's workers are in a union. A shrinking middle class, home foreclosures, worry over college tuition costs, concern for lack of adequate health care, and insecurity in old age plague a large, growing portion of our population. The wealthiest nation on earth finds an ever-rising number of its citizens in economic peril. Not a mere coincidence, falling union membership is in large part responsible for this state of affairs....

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