Leftist campus leader praises AFSCME

The ongoing informational picketing by maintenance and custodial union AFSCME Local 1699 has done two services for the university community. Not only has picketing once again opened our eyes to the administration’s misplaced budget priorities, but it has also reminded us of the importance of labor unions in securing economic and social reform. Ohio University students should learn the concrete political lesson currently being taught by a union right here on campus: Workers, whether white-collar or blue-collar, can only stand up to corrupt and greedy employers and their political puppets when they are organized.

It is often said that other industrialized nations have a better social safety net than we have in the United States, and that is certainly true. Most of our European friends have universal health care, social security that retirees can actually live on, and affordable higher education, just to name a few things. It is often overlooked, however, that in countries with a stronger social safety net there is often a very strong labor movement. Can this correlation really be accidental?

Take Britain, for example. Many of the social and economic reforms that have been made in Britain during the late 19th and 20th centuries were made by the Labour Party, which was at least originally controlled by organized labor. Even after Margaret Thatcher returned the Conservative Party to power in the late 1970s and throughout the ‘80s, she was only able to minimally alter the reforms made by previous Labour governments. Although union power in Britain is now weaker than it once was, most of the reforms secured by organized labor are now permanent. No one in British politics is talking seriously anymore about abolishing the National Health Service or telling poor and middle class children they can’t be educated.

Yet while other countries like Britain and France now have a strong social safety net that will likely never be seriously weakened, we in the United States are still arguing about the basics. Why? It’s because our labor movement has never been allowed to flourish. Organized labor felt empowered in this country after Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, but Cold War era anti-communist propaganda quickly lumped organized labor and any proposal that even hinted at social or economic progress in with the evil Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. Organized labor was dealt another serious blow during the 1980s under the Reagan administration, as President Reagan did his best to undermine both national and international protections for the American worker. The legacy that we see today of the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer, of American jobs being exported overseas to workers who are seriously mistreated, is the legacy of Ronald Reagan’s ultra-capitalist, union-busting policies. We are weaker today both economically and socially because Reagan and company tried to deal a death-blow to the American labor movement.

Yet with a new generation comes new hope. Labor unions still exist in America, and it is up to those of us who are now coming of age to recognize their importance and take them seriously as the movers and shakers behind social and economic progress. Our generation has not been impacted by Cold War propaganda that treated compassion as communism, empathy as evil. It is up to us to revive the labor movement here in America by supporting the unions that already exist, like AFSCME Local 1699, and by being open to labor organization as we start our careers — again, whether those careers are white-collar or blue-collar. As has been demonstrated in other countries, organization is the only hope that the working and middle classes have for creating a more equitable and democratic economy. So the next time you see maintenance and custodial workers handing out fliers, thank them for the lesson they’re teaching you about economic reality in this country, and let them know that you support their fight for an economy that works for all of us.

Nathan Nelson is a sophomore political science major and a member of Students for a Democratic Society.


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