By David Betras
Labor Day has always held special significance for the people of the Mahoning Valley for a number of reasons. First, because the holiday honors the courage of the men and women who gave so much — in some cases their lives — in the often bloody battles that were fought to win dignity for workers. Second, because it was a time to celebrate the vital role the labor movement played in making it possible for our families to achieve the American Dream. And third, because it served as the kickoff for election campaigns that often determined who would control government and chart the course of our community’s, our state’s, and our nation’s future.
This Labor Day will differ from recent commemorations in one important way: intensity. That’s because Sept. 5 will mark the official beginning of the crusade to kill Senate Bill 5. Now on the ballot as Issue 2, SB 5 is an assault on the basic human rights that thousands of brave men and women struggled to secure. It also represents the apex of the Republican-driven effort to weaken and eventually erase the labor movement in the United States.
Air traffic controllers
That effort began during the Reagan administration, with the firing of the nation’s air traffic controllers. That act was merely a symbol of his disdain for organized labor. The real attack came in the form of the appointments he made to the National Labor Relations Board and the federal courts. Over the next 20 years those appointees would hand down hundreds of decisions that made it difficult, if not impossible, for workers to organize, legalized hiring scabs, and gutted workplace safety laws.
Today, in the wake of the sharp decrease in union membership precipitated by Reagan and his Republican successors, our nation’s economy is stalled and middle class wages are stagnant. Wall Street, including many of the financial institutions that caused the home foreclosure crisis, thrives while families on Main Street struggle to find jobs and sense that they are losing their shot at capturing the American Dream. Can anyone truly say that we are better off as a nation now than when the assault on unions and their members began?
To answer that question, simply examine the state of our nation when unions and labor were thriving. It’s no coincidence that the economic expansion that followed World War II coincided with the explosive growth of the labor movement. Then, collective bargaining enabled workers to share in the success and the profits they were producing. Those workers fueled the economy by buying houses, cars, clothes, and electronics. They could afford to take vacations and send their kids to college. As their union contracts enabled them to share the wealth, America as a whole grew wealthier.
We should all keep those facts in mind as we make decisions about candidates and issues in the months and years ahead. Rather than supporting candidates and issues that would further weaken unions or workers rights, the time has come to reverse the trend, to fight for policies that will create the opportunity for working men and women to earn a living wage. That is the true path to prosperity for our community and our nation. A strong thriving middle class is the best business model for corporate America. This model should control our thoughts on this Labor Day.
David J. Betras, a lawyer, is chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party.