‘Wages, hours and working conditions’ not enough: Unions must speak for all workers

Tom ChamberlainBy Tom Chamberlain, Oregon AFL-CIO president

American attitudes and the union movement have come a long may since I first became involved with labor in the 1980s.  My union training was from fire union leadership who fought in World War II and Korea.  They were tough, they never complained, and they got the job done. In fact, they would roll over any obstacle that stood in their path without a second thought.

Firefighter union leadership was all white and all male. Their focus and their mantra — and what they instilled in young leaders like myself — was wages, hours and working conditions. Stay away from social issues, stay away from issues that can’t be addressed at the bargaining table.

This philosophy dates back to Samuel Gompers.  Gompers was a founding member of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and its president for over 30 years.  He was a strong supporter of these principles, focusing efforts at the bargaining table rather than the ballot box. But even he took a broad view of wages, hours, and working conditions, staking out positions on immigration and foreign affairs.

The firefighter unions of the 1980s were not unique.  Many unions of that era limited their focus to (you guessed it) wages, hours, and working conditions.

The problem with the 1980s mantra is what it ignores. Workers come in all shapes and colors.  To focus only on what can be achieved at the bargaining table ignores the fact that our union movement must speak for all workers — not just those who are fortunate enough to hold a union card.

Two years ago, when the Oregon AFL-CIO passed a convention resolution supporting same-sex marriage, some were caught off guard. I personally received telephone calls from people who were outraged that we took such action.

Why would anyone be caught off guard?  We represent union members who are lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender.  And if we fight for all workers — whether they are union members or not — why would the Oregon union movement push the LBGT community to the curb and turn a blind eye to a basic human rights issue,  one with significant economic impacts on Oregon workers and their families, at that?

Today, the union movement has moved beyond a 1980s agenda of focusing on wages, hours, and working conditions.  By staking out a position on comprehensive immigration reform, we will ensure that undocumented workers who have been excluded from any protection on the job have a voice.  We can show them the value of a union by giving them protection, making it hard for bad employers to exploit them, and if we can reduce such exploitation, we can stabilize and increase wages.

Comprehensive reform means tighter control and oversight of a guest worker program that allows employers to bring in workers from outside the United States. If guest workers lose their jobs, they are deported, creating a program ripe for exploitation that drives down American wages.

Comprehensive reform means a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented workers who have been in America for decades, contributing to our economy and hoping to  be treated like equal workers.

Our position is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.  By giving millions of workers legal status, we ensure they have a voice on the job, which leads to greater protections for workers and increases our ability to increases wages and benefits.

No, this isn’t the labor movement I was introduced to sitting around a kitchen table at a fire station at 5th and Southwest College St. three decades ago. But it is the labor movement that’s on the side of all workers, and on the side of a stronger future.

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