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On Labor Day, we'll march for both economic, civil rights

Rochester Business Journal
August 30, 2013

This year's theme for Rochester's Labor Day Parade is "Workers' Rights Are Human Rights," something that once was readily understood by most people but is an alien concept in today's historically challenged world.
In the 32 years since President Ronald Reagan broke PATCO, the air traffic controllers' union, elected union leaders have been nearly shut out of the corporate-dominated mainstream media. Before this marginalization of union leaders, it was unusual when a news program on politics, civil rights or any economic issue from the minimum wage to health care did not include a representative of labor to express the views of working America.
I am hopeful that the current state of American workers is forcing a change in hearts and minds that will no longer be ignored by the corporate media. We are seeing low-wage workers, who don't belong to unions, say, "Enough!" They are using the freedom of association and taking concerted action, as protected by labor law, to demand justice in the form of decent wages. Labor unions, church groups and civil rights groups have come to their aid, because already Walmart, for one, has fired some people for exercising what are supposed to be protected rights.
This is being covered by the mainstream press, much to the chagrin of millionaire executives and stockholders at fast-food corporations and retail chains. In the media, questions actually are being raised as to why the richest nation in the world has the lowest minimum wage among First World industrialized nations.
In Australia, a place never touched by the Great Recession, workers make more than $16 per hour and McDonald's makes a 19 percent profit on revenues, doing very well. In France the pay rate is $12.50 an hour, and McDonald's is not closing in France. In America, as service industry protests mount against poverty wages, more and more people who have jobs also receive government assistance.
Corporate propaganda insists that higher wages mean higher costs passed to consumers, which is automatically a bad thing. In fact, a letter signed by 100 economists estimated that raising the minimum wage to $10.50 an hour would result in a nickel increase to the cost of a Big Mac. Newsweek reported economists' calculations that paying $15 an hour would likely add 22 cents to the retail price of a Big Mac.
Although only 21 percent of the job losses during the recession were considered low-wage positions, 58 percent of the jobs added during the recovery are low-wage. About 12 years ago, America had the largest share of 25- to 34-year-olds employed among the larger, wealthy economies. We are now among the lowest. The Wall Street Journal has noted that nearly 300,000 people with at least a bachelor's degree were making minimum wage in 2012, double the number in 2007-this while total student debt has quadrupled in 10 years. The bottom 47 percent of America has no wealth; their debts exceed their assets. Yet politicians cater to those too big to fail, and American homeowners have been too small to matter.
While more Americans continue to struggle, the corporate media, led by Fox News, continue to bash unions as bad and the reason why U.S. jobs have been sent overseas. They continue to promote cutting taxes for corporations and the rich as "job creation," although that has been proved false over and over. Cutting taxes for the rich does not create jobs; consumer demand creates jobs. That means the nation needs upward mobility and a growing middle class, but we have the opposite. Wealth inequality is nearly unprecedented, and there has been a redistribution of wealth to the top for decades.
Those are facts to be dealt with, no matter your politics. Fox News would have you believe it is the high cost of union labor that is pushing jobs offshore. For more than a decade and a half, however, the overwhelming number of jobs sent offshore have been jobs not represented by unions. In fact, during that time 10 percent or less of private-sector jobs have been represented by unions. Many exported jobs have been managerial or professional, technical and research and development jobs in medical services, financial services, computer science and engineering.
So what have the Republicans in Congress, sometimes joined by neo-liberal Democrats, done to foster job creation and prosperity? They killed a jobs bill in 2011 that would have added 2 million jobs to repair the nation's infrastructure. They filibustered a bill that would have cut off tax breaks given to companies creating or moving jobs offshore, and instead they took actions that eliminated jobs, like the sequester. At a recent congressional hearing on unemployment, only one Republican even bothered to show up.
This brings me back to the theme of this year's Labor Day parade, "Workers' Rights Are Human Rights." We are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr. made his "I Have a Dream" speech.
The march, organized by civil rights, labor and religious leaders, had 250,000 people, not one violent incident and 10 demands. Key among those was "a massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers-Negro and white-on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages" and "a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living" with pay of at least $2 an hour. The minimum wage in 1963 was $1.25 and left workers in poverty; adjusted for inflation, that would be $10.50 per hour-inadequate, but more than one-third higher than it currently stands.
The goals of the March on Washington have not been met, but sometimes social movements trying to change an unjust status quo fall back, even for decades, if economic and political injustice are not rooted out. Whether combating the redistribution of wealth upward or the "war on drugs" as the second coming of Jim Crow, the struggle does continue. The oppression of black people and discrimination against other minorities have always been crucial to helping the ruling elite divide and exploit workers while making huge profits. We know that the labor and civil rights movements need greater solidarity than ever before, because workers' rights, whether in Rochester, Detroit or Bangladesh, are indeed human rights.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt asserted more than once that when millionaires, bankers and corporations control your government, that is fascism. Martin Luther King said the labor hater and race baiter were the same person.
You cannot hate labor and unions and claim you are for civil rights, human rights. You just can't. Outside of the Rush-Fox bubble, it is a contradiction in terms and just not reality.
Happy Labor Day.

James Bertolone is president of the Rochester Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He also is president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 215.

8/30/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email


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