The American trade union movement has achieved remarkable progress with its fights for fair wages and benefits, for an eight-hour day, for protections against child-labor abuses for pensions for retirees and workplace safety. And the movement’s accomplishments have extended beyond the workplace to the community and the nation as a whole, especially when it has marched on the front lines for civil rights and social justice. Those gains have required sacrifice and struggle, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. explained when he addressed the AFL-CIO national convention in 1961.
“Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth,” said King. “The duality of interests of labor and Negroes makes any crisis which lacerates you, a crisis from which we bleed. And as we stand on the threshold of the second half of the twentieth century, a crisis confronts us both. Those who in the second half of the nineteenth century could not tolerate organized labor have had a rebirth of power and seek to regain the despotism of that era while retaining the wealth and privileges of the twentieth century.”
So it really has never been easy.
There have always been haters and baiters.
But it does seem now—at a time when unions are under constant assault from bad trade policies, congressional initiatives to undermine the National Labor Relations Board and existing labor law, transparently irresponsible privatization schemes and the “right-to-work” sneak attacks of Republican governors—that the labor haters and labor baiters are upping the volume. And the anti-labor propaganda has gone over the top.
Consider this: In a matter of days, American unions have been reimagined as threats so menacing that simply responding to them prepares an otherwise inexperienced presidential contender to deal with the cruelest global threats. And unions are being blamed for… displacing the Junior Optimist Baseball League
First, there was the bluster and bombast of 2016 Republican presidential prospect Scott Walker, who responded to a question about what he would do as president to stop the advance of Islamic State (ISIS) by saying: “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.”
The governor of Wisconsin got a lot of blowback for that remark at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference. Forget about the liberals, even conservative commentators allowed as how the challenges of responding to the teachers and librarians who marched on the state Capitol in 2011 might not have fully prepared Walker to see off threats posed by terrorists. But Walker doubled down on the anti-labor line two days after the CPAC gathering, telling a Club for Growth event that “the most significant foreign policy decision in my lifetime… was in August of 1981, when Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers.”
Just to be clear, the members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization were Americans who were exercising their right to assemble and petition for the redress of grievances, just like the teachers and librarians in Madison.
But, apparently, both were so intimidating—in Walker’s eyes—that thwarting the demands of union members provided preparation for tackling the toughest international challenges.
Walker’s critics are right when they suggest that all of this says more about the prospective candidate’s fragile worldview than it does about labor relations or foreign affairs.
Unfortunately, Walker is not alone in imagining that unions are super scary.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, the corporation that owns a major refinery is blocking baseball players aged 4-to-14 from using fields on the edge of its property because the company fears children might be exposed to trade unionists.
Headlines in local papers last week announced that a strike by refinery workers had forced adolescent baseball players off the fields. The Contra Costa Times reported that ” Hundreds of displaced youth baseball players won’t get to play ball on their home fields until striking Tesoro steelworkers return to work, the refinery says.” The paper explained:
The 49 baseball and softball teams in the Junior Optimist Baseball League have been locked out of the 15 North Concord ball fields they rent from Tesoro Golden Eagle refinery since Feb. 2, when the United Steelworkers walked off the job at Tesoro and eight other refineries across the country to protest safety conditions, health care costs and the use of outside contractors for maintenance.
Initially, Tesoro said it closed the league’s fields—plus two soccer fields and another baseball field used by other youth sports groups—as a safety precaution because workers are picketing outside the refinery’s front gates…
Declaring that the gates won’t be opened until the strike is over, Tesoro spokeswoman Patricia Deutsche told a local website that, “It’s for the safety of the kids and the parents and spectators that would have to cross picket lines. We just don’t want to expose them to any negative interactions.”
“Noting that demonstrators from the California Nurses Association, Communities for a Better Environment and the Occupy movement have swelled the ranks of the picketing refinery workers, Deutsche said the company believes the situation is unsafe,” reported the Contra Costa Times.
Calfornia Nurses Association spokesman Chuck Idelson was incredulous. “Nurses are a threat to kids playing baseball?” said Idelson, who suggested that it was “disgraceful” for the energy conglomerate “to be blaming anybody else but themselves.”
It is worth noting here that the steelworkers are not targeting baseball. “There’s just absolutely no way we’d picket a Little League field,” announced Tracy Scott, a staff representative with United Steelworkers Local 5. The striking workers, many of them parents and active members of the community, are focused on exceptionally serious issues, including health and safety concerns—which is one of the reasons why the nurses union has gotten engaged. “These refineries are notorious for blowing smoke,” says California Nurses Association/National Nurses United executive director Rose Ann De Moro. “The real danger to the young baseball players and the people in their community is the toxic pollution from refinery emissions and accidents. Central to the strike is the workers seeking to have a stronger voice on health and safety issues for themselves and their community.”
Unions work hard to present themselves as robust representatives for their members.
There are times when individual locals, international unions and the whole of the AFL-CIO must stand strong.
There are times when tensions on picket lines or in the corridors of power can rise.
But the notion that steelworkers or nurses pose a threat to Junior Optimist Baseball is as silly as the notion that being unreasonable with teachers and librarians in Wisconsin prepares a candidate to tackle terror in the Middle East.