Average worker needs to be priority all year long

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 8, 2004

On Labor Day and beyond, Americans ought to consider the struggles of the average worker in this country. It has not been easy to survive the current economic climate - wages have not kept pace with even the modest inflation we have had over the past few years.

Those earning minimum wage have seen living standards virtually collapse in the last 30 years. There are many more working Americans who have lost all or most of their benefits, including health insurance. And, there are one million more Americans out of work then there were four years ago.

There are a lot of reasons why.

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Republicans, who seem to run most everything these days, are hostile to organized labor and to working people in general.

President Reagan fired the first shot when he decertified the air traffic controllers union 23 years ago, and organized labor has yet to recover.

The most recent hostile action was Gov. George Pataki's (R-NY) veto of a minimum wage bill which would have raised the minimum wage to the same level we have here in Vermont as of Jan. 1, 2004 - $7/hour.

Organized labor used to get plenty of bad press.

From the Central States Pension Fund scandals that revealed union leaders stealing members' money, to the proven connections between labor leaders and organized crime, to unions at war with the progress being made on race relations. Not to mention, the labor movement has weathered its fair share of corruption.

But, we should all be grateful that labor unions don't give up easily. For example, in June, the nation's largest labor union sponsored a day of marches all over the country in support of universal health insurance, even though most members of unions already have that benefit under their contracts.

And, the AFL-CIO has been leading the fight for years for a higher minimum wage.

Taking a role in these issues proves that organized labor is now one of the leading progressive forces in America, fighting not only for its own members, but for millions of Americans who are not union members and do not pay any union dues.

The success of American capitalism depends on most Americans believing that the system works for all of us, not just those who have a lot of money. In the 1980s, Republicans believed that labor unions were too powerful.

Today they are too weak, and those who work for a living are rapidly being deprived of a fair reward for their work.

If you want America to succeed, this must change. We need to make it easier to organize low-wage workers and immigrants, so that they will have some hope achieving home ownership and college educations for their kids.

We need to make it easier to organize middle class Americans so their dreams will be preserved in the face of Republican policies which take money from wage earners in the form of higher costs for local services, health and education.

All Americans ought to remember that achieving fairness and balance is the key to long term success of the country. We are rapidly alienating middle class and working families which, ultimately, makes America weaker.

To re-establish that balance, a good first step is to restore the ability of organized labor to stand up for all American workers.

Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, is the founder of Democracy for America. E-mail Howard Dean at howarddean@democracyforamerica.com.