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William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies


Published by Omaha World Heard, Labor Day, Monday, September 6, 2010

Midlands Voices:

Unions' History Dedicated to Freedoms of Workers

By John Kretzschmar

The writer is director of the William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Labor Day is the only U.S. holiday dedicated to average Americans who work for a living. They sell their intelligence, experience and strength to an employer to earn a living. Their wages are an important component essential to keeping our nation's economic engine alive.

The U.S. Department of Labor website describes Labor Day as "a creation of the labor movement" and "dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers."

This Labor Day finds Nebraska and the nation facing economic challenges unmatched since the Great Depression. The American dream, where parents believe their hard work means the next generation will be better off, is becoming a distant memory. For that reason, it's especially important to learn more about the history and importance of labor unions to the employment relationship.

The employer-employee relationship directly and indirectly affects the quality of life of employers and employees alike, often from birth to death. Because work is the primary means by which Americans provide for their families, the history of the "humanization" of the employment relationship should be included in the telling of our nation's history.

Few people know that our nation's first Labor Day was actually the Fourth of July! In the first half of the 19th century, American unions chose Independence Day as their day to parade and picnic. To introduce a bit of democracy into the employer-employee relationship, union members made the analogy between the 13 colonies uniting to end the master-servant relationship England enjoyed in North America, and workers' attempts to unite as one.

Our American form of self-government creates a "social contract" between the citizenry and those in office. This social contract spells out the mutual obligations and expectations for both sides and allows the governed to have an independent voice in decisions that affect their future.

Our Constitution creates certain inalienable human rights and freedoms that all Americans enjoy, such as the freedoms of speech, assembly and association; the presumption of innocence; the protection from self-incrimination; and the right to due process.

Americans naturally expect their inalienable human rights and freedoms to extend beyond civil society into the workplace. Generally speaking, except in a unionized workplace, these rights are left behind.

The default position in American workplace law is "at-will" employment, and that means these rights and freedoms are not considered part of the employment relationship. The limitations an "at-will" employment relationship puts on employees are not widely taught in our schools nor widely appreciated by the general public."

"At-will" employers have, within certain legal restrictions, the right to unilaterally establish and change wages, as well as vary hours of work and terms and conditions of employment for employees. Under the "at-will" employment doctrine, workers legally owe an allegiance to the employer — an allegiance that the employer is not legally bound to reciprocate.

The primary right that an employee in this relationship has is the right to quit. That could mean in today's economy, where two-income families are the norm, many working parents could be forced to choose between being productive employees and being good family members.

Employees believe that when they work hard, are loyal and perform well, their employers should treat them fairly, rather than regarding them as just another cost of doing business. Not many union or non-union workers fully understand that labor unions help extend the democratic rights and freedoms they enjoy in society into the workplace.

Unions are the vehicles that create a meaningful dialogue with management that's not found in "at-will" employment. Unions create a collective voice that uses collective bargaining to negotiate a workplace "social contract."

Federal and state governments enacted legislation encouraging the creation of unions and collective bargaining because they knew that, without these tools, employees are without a real voice.

Unions serve as important institutions in our economy that ensure employees have a voice in workplace decisions that affect their futures. Collective bargaining is the process whereby the union partners with management to jointly define the terms and conditions of employment that both sides agree to live by. Unions and collective bargaining are important tools for ensuring that workers can create a broadly shared prosperity.

This Labor Day, Nebraskans are forced to find ways to grow a strong and vibrant economy. Unions and collective bargaining are important tools to help ensure that any economic growth is achieved in ways that also build strong, vibrant families and communities.

In that way, all Nebraskans, indeed all Americans, will prosper.

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