8th Annual Sarpy County Democratic Legacy Dinner “SALUTE TO LABOR”

Unions 101: Sarpy County Democrats “Legacy Dinner” 2017

Keynote Speech by John Kretzschmar, Director, William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha

  • I want to thank Charlene for her gracious invitation to share a couple thoughts about 1) organized labor, and 2) its history as potentially our nation’s oldest, largest, and most successful institution advocating for economic and social justice.
  • Let me start by saying, that it’s an honor to be among so many “difference makers.” Each of us, in our own way, directly and indirectly works to make this a more fair and more just community, state, and nation. Some of us work on a large stage, and others, like myself, a smaller one.
  • It doesn’t matter what stage you are working on…the important thing is the work itself.
  • Robert Kennedy put it this way…“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation … It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is thus shaped. Each time a [woman or] man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, [s]he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of repression and injustice.
  • Here’s some audience participation stuff…please take a second and think about the 5 most important relationships you have and how each adds to your quality of life.
  • Got it? OK, with a show of hands let’s see which relationships you think are most important.
  • How many of you had family members in your top 5? Continue to “debrief”
  • How you earn a living…directly and indirectly affects each of the other relationships you identified as being important to you.
  • We don’t typically think of the selling and buying of a person’s intelligence, experience and strength in order to earn a living as a “relationship.” But it is.
  • About 90% of the workforce sells theirs directly to employers. The remainder are the self-employed.
  • I am so fortunate to be able to work to strengthen organized labor’s ability to first, introduce and later, to maintain…meaningful democracy in workplaces across the state and the nation.
  • Since 1980, I have headed the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies. It has been called a “labor of love,” and it is.
  • Please let me share one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in that time as head of UNO’s labor studies program
  • For the first 3 decades of doing my work with organized labor, I’d occasionally meet someone in Nebraska or elsewhere who had a “negative” impression of labor unions.
  • Not being one to let those conversations drop, I’d try to engage the person and give my take on unions. Too often the discussion turned into a debate, and if there were debate judges around, I was sure that I won…hands down
  • Sadly, the “loser” NEVER said to me at the end of our exchange, “Thanks for those insights. I didn’t get any of that in my formal schooling or even in the years after that schooling ended. I will use the insights you’ve shared in my future discussions with others about labor unions.”
  • After 30 years, I discovered that in discussing unions with those not already on board the “union train,” that my job was to win “hearts and minds” RATHER THAN debates.
  • So for the last 6 years or so, I have been doing a lot of reading about how the human brain processes information. The research led to the development of a class I call “How to Effectively Talk Union.”
  • The class is meant to help union leaders and activists explain to 1) union members AND 2) the general public what unions are, and how they work to insure a fair shot at the American Dream for everyday wage earners.
  • Just as an aside, I have also developed a section of the class about “explaining the ‘proper’ role of government in our everyday lives.”
  • Organized labor is, IMO, a public good. Like the American Revolution, labor unions work to establish a meaningful voice for the previously voiceless. Everyday wage earners gain a say in collectively working with management to improve levels of fairness and justice in the workplace…and community.
  • I have a brief time with you, and so the challenge for me was to figure out where to start to show unions to be a public good. I think I’ll begin with an underappreciated and relatively unknown quote by the first president of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers.
  • At the turn of the 20th Century…at the end of the Gilded Age…Samuel Gompers was asked, “What does labor want?” His reply is, in my opinion, the best umbrella statement that has ever been given to that question. He said…

“What do we want? More schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning, less crime; more leisure, less greed; more justice, less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.”

  • Let’s unpack Gompers’ early “mission statement” for organized labor in the U.S. Let me start by saying that our brains automatically and below the level of human awareness act to “fill in the blanks.” In “unpacking” how our brain reacted to Gompers’ words we need to ask ourselves: Who are the villains, victims, and heroes? What are the values in play? And whose side should we be on?
  • His quote spoke to values that the labor movement both supported and opposed.
  • He made a statement that included ALL who worked to earn a living either as an employee…or as an employer!
  • What Gompers was addressing was the need to create a nation and economy where, if you worked hard and played by the rules, you could earn a piece of the American Dream.
  • His statement implies that there are roadblocks on the path to the American Dream, and that labor wants to work to remove those roadblocks.
  • His answer is wrapped in traditional American values that could inspire many to rally around organized labor as a public good.
  • Importantly, Gompers avoided directly mentioning wages, hours of work, or the terms and conditions of employment.
  • THEREFORE, it was important for the economic elites and their allies in the press to dramatically change what Gompers said.
  • The media made Gompers’ quote much shorter. It reduced it to one word…MORE.
    • Again, filling in the blanks as to how our brains react to the one word answer MORE, ask yourself…
    • Who are the villains, victims, and heroes? What are values in play? And which side should you be on?
    • Does the ugly stereotype that unions are greedy and never satisfied still remain with us over a century later? Of course they do!
  • Labor unions have but four inextricably interrelated tools for building the power needed to effectively carry out Gompers’ mission statement.
  • They are political engagement, collective bargaining, organizing the unorganized to take the cost of labor out of competition, and building coalitions and alliances with like-minded organizations.
  • Everyone in this room understands political engagement, but sometimes, my students don’t!
  • I explain to my students that “unions are in politics because politics won’t leave unions alone.”
  • I follow it up with the bit of history that the first court case dealing with unions and collective bargaining dates back to 1806!
  • A judge in Philadelphia ruled, using his understanding of common law that unions were by their very nature… “illegal criminal conspiracies.”
  • Upon learning of that judge’s decision, state legislatures quickly enacted legislation codifying the judge’s ruling.
  • Unions had their first experimentation in politics in the late 1820s and early 1830s…in, not surprisingly, Philadelphia.
  • These wage earners formed a Workingman’s Party. Its platform planks included 1) an end to imprisonment for debt; 2) mechanic’s lien laws; 3) free universal public education; and 4) the 10-hour day.
  • It’s also important to appreciate that every piece of legislation that helped humanize the modern employment relationship, was enacted with the support of organized labor.
  • We’re talking workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, minimum wage, OT, the Equal Pay Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, OSHA, the ADA, FMLA and more.
  • Again, supporting this kind of legislation is consistent with Gompers mission statement.
  • If any of this is new to you, you can’t be blamed. Why? Because the history of how the employment relationship was humanized over time, is MISSING from our K-12 curricula.
  • And because history, like nature, abhors a vacuum…the hole where an accurate history of the “humanization process” is missing information….that hole is filled with anti-union stories that distort the many contributions that unions have made to helping create a more fair and more just society.
  • To that end, when the Nebraska Social Studies standards again come up for review, I would like your help in getting that missing history added to the state’s standards.
  • And when the State School Board comes up with a statewide test for social studies, I would also like your help in getting just one question about the humanization of the employment relationship on that test!
  • So politics is a critical variable in helping everyday wage earners have a “fair shot” at the American Dream. Politics is so important that a past president of the Nebraska State AFL-CIO said it was “the only game in town.”
  • Organized labor gets it. Starting in the 1820s and 30s in Philadelphia they got it. And there’s more labor history that you may have missed…
  • The first national umbrella group for labor unions was the National Labor Union, which was founded in 1866 following the end of the Civil War. Politics became so important to them that in 1872, they morphed their organization into the National Labor Party, an independent party that lasted just that one election and then died.
  • Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor (or AFL as we know it today), which was founded in 1886, knew the lessons of the National Labor Party, and chose to create a philosophy that shunned allegiance to any political party.
  • Gompers said that, when it came to politics, the labor movement should “reward its friends and punish its enemies.” And it did…for a while. It officially stayed away from the creation of the Populist Party, whose founding convention was in Omaha on July 4, 1892.
  • But by 1896, the AFL threw its support to Democrat William Jennings Bryan in his attempt to win the Presidency. Labor knew the power of huge corporations, and their ability to influence elections.
  • McKinley’s campaign chairman, Mark Hanna, made it abundantly clear when he famously quipped in 1895, “There are two things important in politics. Money, and I can’t remember the second.”
  • And for every presidential election since with one exception, the 1924 election, the AFL supported the Democratic Party’s candidate for President.
  • So here we are on April 21, 2017 in Sarpy County at an event celebrating difference makers. I have just laid out a brief overview of organized labor, and what it has historically done to create better workplaces for ALL wage earners…and, by extension, better communities.
  • Samuel Gompers’ vision for what organized labor exists to do is consistent with what the Democratic Party exists to do.
  • We learned, this evening, that the employment relationship is critical to your quality of life.
  • We learned that the mission of the labor movement was, from its creation, to make the American Dream available to EVERYONE who sells her or his intelligence, experience, and strength to an employer to earn a living.
  • We learned that the story of how the modern employment relationship became humanized over time is MISSING in action from our state’s social studies standards.
  • We learned that in a nation dedicated to the proposition that all of us are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights…in a country where we pledge that ours is a nation with liberty and justice for all… organized labor and the Democratic Party have been and continue to be allies in insuring that “all levels of government, in our democratic republic, have a moral obligation to use our commonwealth in ways that protect and empower all of us equally.”
  • I want to thank you for your attention. I hope that I have 1) filled in some of the missing information and 2) corrected some untrue stereotypes about what labor has done and will continue to do…to remove roadblocks to the American Dream.
  • Please 1) enjoy the rest of the evening and 2) continue to be difference makers, that’s the price we must pay for being on this Earth.

The Big Picture document has the “magic” sentence that I believe should be used as an “umbrella” statement about what Democrats believe and the 3 dangers associated with the contracting out or privatization of government services. – John Kretzschmar

Click on the link below to read

The Big Picture: Understanding the Proper Role of Government

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