The Real Strength of the Economy
Pre-Labor Day 2000 address by Ralph Nader
A labor agenda for workers.
During the post World War II era 53 years ago, a pro-business Congress
passed the Taft-Hartley Act in an effort to slow, if not stop, the
growth of the American labor movement. The fondest dreams of its
corporate sponsors are being realized today.
John L. Lewis, the president of the United Mine Workers, was prophetic
when he remarked following passage of the legislation:
"This Act was passed to oppress labor, to make difficult its current
enterprises for collective bargaining, to make more difficult the
securing of new members for this labor movement, without which our
movement will become so possessed of inertia that there is no security
for its existence."
As Lewis predicted, union members have fallen to less than 10 percent of the
workers in the private economy today-the lowest in 60 years and far below
the percentage of organized workers in comparable western
As we approach Labor Day 2000, there is a critical need for the labor
movement and progressives to once again pick up the battle against the
restrictive anti-labor provisions of Taft Hartley. There is a need to
adopt labor laws which end the tilt toward employers and provide a fair
opportunity for workers to organize without intimidation. Today, nearly one
out of every ten workers involved in union organizing drives is fired by
employers who wage a campaign of fear, threats and
slickpropaganda to keep workers from exercising a genuinely free choice.
Any reform of the labor laws should include a provision that would
impose treble damages against employers who unfairly fire
employeesbecause of their efforts to organize unions. The current law is
essentially a meaningless deterrent as it relates to such incidents. It
calls only for reinstatement with back pay, minus earnings of fired workers,
if you can afford a lawyer to win your case.
The need for fair labor laws goes beyond the interests of the unions,
themselves. As union membership falls so do the wages of all working people,
union and non-union alike. This is particularly true for low-wage workers in
the United States which historically have earned less than their
counterparts in advanced European economies. The typical low wage worker in
Europe earns 44 percent more than in the United States. One in five children
exist at a poverty level in the United States, more than twice the rate of
child poverty in western Europe. More than a fourth of Hispanic and
African-American children in the United States live in poverty.
Much is made of the increase in income of married middle-class couples, but
a significant part of this increase comes from growth in family work hours
which are up 182 hours to 3,600 hours-nearly 4.5 extra full-time weeks a
year since 1989. And much of the "extra" earnings of two-worker families is
offset by increases in costs for child-care, transportation and related
We spend more on health care than any other nation in the world, but a
poorly regulated, corporate-dominated health care system eliminates
choice, erodes care and inflates administrative costs while boosting
profits and executive compensation. Yet, more than 45 million Americans have
no health insurance.
Eighty-percent of these uninsured are working families and their
dependents. Universal health care, as well as enactment of fair labor laws,
should be a priority on the labor agenda.
Labor Day 2000 should also mark a new resolve to end abuse of trade by
corporations under the guise of "free trade." Free trade sloganeering
has been a means to hide corporate efforts to evade labor and
environmental standards and, with the support of dictatorial regimes, to
exploit workers throughout the world.
Trade policies should be based on "pulling standards" up around the
world, not on "pulling down" our standards. Labor, joined by
environmentalists and human rights advocates, should make clear the
differences between the corporate managed trade and what is truly "fair
trade" that provides decent protections for workers and the environment.
Labor Day 2000 should be a moment for the nation to focus new emphasis
and new action on the rights of the nation's workers-the real strength
of our economy.