By Dave O’Brien
Labor Day celebrates the very heart of the American dream.
America is the greatest country in history, not just because we have wealthy and powerful people — every society in history has had wealthy and powerful people. America is the greatest country because collective bargaining provided workers with the means necessary to demand fair wages, better working conditions and needed benefits for themselves and their families. My father taught me to never cross a union picket line. He explained, “we need to support folks who are trying to make a better living.”
The U.S. middle class hasn’t always existed. At the turn of the last century, during the Industrial Age, immense wealth was being created. But almost all of the benefit of the Industrial Age was going to the wealthiest Americans who even formed trusts to further concentrate their wealth. The workers who labored in the factories to create that wealth barely earned enough to survive.
And, things would have remained that way except for a Progressive Republican President — Teddy Roosevelt — who broke up the too-big-to-fail trusts and supported workers forming unions. Joining together, workers had the clout to demand a bigger piece of the economic pie and safer working conditions.
In today’s economic recovery, we’re once again seeing immense wealth being created for the richest among us. While the S&P 500 has doubled since President Barack Obama’s first day in office, more than two-thirds of Americans say they’re living paycheck to paycheck.
Working families on Iowa’s Main Streets aren’t getting their fair share of the recovery. Since we know collective bargaining was critical to the creation of the middle class in the first place, it stands to reason that encouraging unions now will lead to a resurgence of the middle class.
First, we need to enforce the laws on the books that provide workers with a level playing field when attempting to form unions. Second, we need to increase penalties against employers who violate those laws, threaten workers trying to organize and retaliate against employees who support the union. Finally, we need to make it easier for workers to bargain collectively by recognizing a union once a majority of employees express support for the union.
We need a wealthy class of entrepreneurs willing to risk capital to produce goods and services. But, we also need a healthy middle class able to actually purchase those goods and services. Labor Day is the time to honor those individuals who fight to ensure a bigger piece of the economic pie for the middle class.
Dave O’Brien, an attorney from Cedar Rapids is a native Iowan and lifelong Democrat running for Congress in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District. Comments: www.obrienforiowa.com