In this second of a 4-part series, retired IEA member Tom Suhrbur examines the labor movement and how its successes improved individual and family prosperity.
In addition to a vibrant labor movement, the federal “safety net” programs have been essential for the working class and lower middle class. Minimum wage laws put pressure on business to pay higher wages, especially for low paid workers. The federal minimum wage in 1968 was worth 48 percent more in spending power than it is today.
Social Security provides workers with disability insurance, death benefits for their families and a modest pension in retirement. It was the only income for my grandmother. After my father died, it was the sole income for my mother. Two of my brothers would be homeless today without it. A younger brother is on Social Security disability and receives food stamps.
Social Security is the major, if not exclusive, source of income for most family members. Like most moderate and low-income people, family members are just (or barely) getting by on Social Security. Likewise, Medicare is keeping most retirees alive and out of poverty. Medicaid covers many people, especially in old age, not just the poor.
When all of her savings ran out, my mother ended up on Medicaid. Medicaid and her Social Security benefit paid for nursing home care until her death. In the 1960’s and 70’s, life was good for many working class families. Much has changed since then.
The election of President Ronald Reagan was a watershed in American politics. Over the last 35 years, the Republican Party has moved increasingly to the right in its politics. Today, most Republicans support policies that undermine unions, attack the social safety net and shift wealth and income to the wealthiest Americans.
Republicans are unabashedly anti-union. Unions now represent less than 12 percent of the workforce. Since more than half of all union members are public employees, states controlled by Republicans have enacted various schemes to undermine their unions. They support outsourcing public employment for everything from prisons to toll roads and parking meters. They also have stripped public employees of their bargaining rights, cut state pension benefits, passed “right to work” legislation, lowered unemployment benefits and reduced workers’ compensation benefits.
Public education is a special target. About one third of all union members work in public education. Republicans have backed tuition vouchers for private and parochial schools. Their support for charter schools is largely based on creating a union free school system.
At the federal level, Republicans have sponsored various proposals to weaken (or eliminate) OSHA, unemployment insurance, unemployment compensation and workers’ compensation. During the Reagan and the two Bush administrations, appointments to the federal bench and the National Labor Relations Board have been anti-union. They too avidly support privatization of public employment to create investment opportunities for their corporate sponsors and to diminish labor unions.