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How Labor Won (And Then Lost)

Happy post-Labor Day! Hope you had a wonderful time with friends and family.

I spent my Labor Day speaking at a workers’ rights rally in Fairfield, Iowa.  It was a lot of fun.  The organizer of the event was Chris Laursen, the head of a United Autoworkers chapter in Ottumwa, Iowa.

In preparation for my speech, I researched the history of Chris’s union, including the work of Chris’s hero, Walter Reuther, the founder of the modern UAW.

Holy cow did I learn a lot. Walter Reuther was an incredible leader. Some of the things that he did were astounding:

– He showed up to a Ford plant knowing he was going to get beaten up just so the press would get photos of his bloodied face to build sympathy for workers.

– He told one automaker that if they didn’t give in on a particular area, he’d call a strike just in their factories and let their competitors get ahead.  Then, after he got that automaker on board, he’d go to the other two and ask them to match the concession.  He systematically improved worker conditions and grew the UAW to 1.5 million members.

– He survived two assassination attempts, including being shot in his own home.  He had to write with his left hand because his right arm had been shattered by buckshot.  His brother was also shot in his home and lost his right eye.  They kept going.

– He bailed Martin Luther King Jr. out of jail and helped organize the March on Washington in [1964]. He gave a speech right before the famous “I have a dream speech.”

– He advocated for civil rights and women’s rights and was a key force in Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. He saw his role as organizing for a more just society.  He continued to be a force for change right until he died in 1970 under suspicious circumstances in a plane crash.

Learning about Walter Reuther’s life and impact gave me a different appreciation for just what workers had to go through to fight for decent salaries, benefits and equitable treatment.  Labor Day for most of my life has simply been a Monday off at the end of summer.  I didn’t realize until recently that it was inaugurated in 1894 in response to the Pullman Strike, a long-running set of railway riots that killed dozens of people and caused billions of dollars worth of damage.  Our country has not historically been quick to treat workers well.

What I said to Chris and the workers in Fairfield, Iowa was that this hasn’t changed.  But unfortunately, things have gotten much worse for unions since the 1970s.  Their membership has collapsed by 70% since its peak, reflecting the declines of unions nationally.  Many trends are going against them.  Their union is fighting a losing battle.

What they need is a game-changer, something that fundamentally changes the rules of the field. And that game-changer is the Freedom Dividend – a dividend of $1,000 per month for every adult in Iowa.

Universal Basic Income would put about $16 billion into the hands of Iowan families every year and create 40,000 jobs in the state.  It would also dramatically increase worker bargaining power, as workers would have a cushion to fall back on and could push harder against exploitative labor conditions. And it would help all workers make better decisions and transitions.

The Freedom Dividend might seem impossible, until you look at our history.  Alaska has had a dividend for 36 years that now pays every resident between $1,000 and $2,000 per year out of oil money.  It was instituted by a Republican Governor and is now immensely popular.  And a plan much like the Freedom Dividend passed the House of Representatives in 1971 under Richard Nixon.  It was endorsed by 1,000 economists who said it would be great for the economy and society.

As I spoke I could see people’s faces opening up to the possibility.  “Really?  That happened?  We can do that?”  Yes we can. Our history shows what our future could be.

I concluded that there is no Walter Reuther anymore.  There is only us.  I reminded the workers of Iowa that they have a unique ability to change the national political conversation.  The leading political leaders will each come to Iowa to court them.  If they come out for a more human-centered economy we can change history.

To do this, we must borrow from the Walter Reuther playbook.  We have to be relentless.  We must be strategic.  And we must fight for a cause bigger than ourselves.  Union members should fight for non-union workers, women, and families. Only then can we change the rules for everyone.

Afterwards, a group of people signed up to volunteer in Eastern Iowa.  It was tremendously gratifying.  The tribe grows every day.

If the tribe grows big enough quickly enough, we will shock the world.

Join the fight

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