'Let the workers organize. Let all thoughtful citizens sustain them, for the future of Labor is the future of America.'

Bruce Maples (bruceinlouisville@gmail.com)
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No sooner did President Franklin D. Roosevelt sign the historic National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 than United Mine Workers of America President John L. Lewis flashed the word to the coalfields: “The President wants you to join the union!”

This week, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka lost no time in responding to President Joe Biden’s headline-grabbing video in which he declared, flat out, that every worker — including those at that Alabama Amazon warehouse — should have the right to freely unionize.

“President Biden is right: Every worker should have the free and fair choice to join a union,” said Trumka in a statement.

The echo of history

No doubt Trumka knows labor history, notably UMWA history. He was UMWA president before he was elected to head the AFL-CIO in 2009.

Lewis, according to the AFL-CIO, risked the union’s diminishing funds “on an all-out organizing drive.” The gamble paid off.

“Scarcely three months after the National Recovery Administration was established, 92 percent of all the country’s coal miners were organized,” says the AFL-CIO. Under the NRA, workers got the right to organize. Declared unconstitutional by a conservative Supreme Court, the NRA was replaced by the 1935 Wagner Act, which restored union rights and required employers to recognize unions.

And today: the PRO Act

Trumka added, “Now it’s time to follow words with action. In order to convert the spirit of the president’s message into the letter of the law, we must pass the PRO Act.”

On the campaign trail, Biden endorsed the PRO Act, the most important pro-labor legislation since the New Deal era. The Democratic-majority House passed the bill a year ago. But its future is in doubt in the 50-50 senate. If every Democrat votes for the legislation — and Vice President Kamala Harris breaks the tie — the Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, will doubtless thwart the PRO Act with a filibuster, which takes 60 votes to overcome.

Here’s more from Trumka: “The burdens of this pandemic have fallen squarely on the shoulders of America’s workers, who are toiling through unprecedented challenges just to keep food on the table. Now more than ever, we need our voices heard on the job.

“Yet, Amazon and employers across the country have continued resorting to coercive threats to keep working people quiet. When managers bully us out of exercising our most basic freedoms, they deny us our best shot at winning the fundamental dignity, security, and respect that we’re owed. It’s time to put an end to it. 

“President Biden campaigned on a promise to be a friend to the labor movement. He has proven he’s willing to speak out and stand with us.”

The famously bushy-eyebrowed Lewis, UMWA president from 1920 to 1960, was one of the most outspoken labor leaders in American history. He embraced the cause of industrial unionism and helped found the CIO in 1935. Throughout his long career as a trade unionist, he proved time and again that he was willing to speak out not just for his miners, but for all workers. 

“Let the workers organize,” he declared. “Let the toilers assemble. Let their crystallized voice proclaim their injustices and demand their privileges. Let all thoughtful citizens sustain them, for the future of Labor is the future of America.”

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Cross-posted from the Kentucky AFL-CIO web site.

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