Bacon writes about labor, immigration, and international politics for The Nation, In These Times, American Prospect, TruthOut, among other publications, and he regularly appears on KPFA and KQED radio. The East Bay Express described his work: "As the US labor movement has come under near constant attack in recent years, the Oakland journalist is one of the last of his breed in the country."
For Labor Day, we've collected some of Bacon's stories about labor as a snapshot of a year in workers' rights.
All photos copyright David Bacon, used by permission of the author.
"Migrant rights activists, artisans and public officials spoke about the important role migration continues to play in Oaxaca's economic, social, political and family life. The state in southern Mexico is the source of one of the largest waves of migration from Mexico to the United States." "Oaxaca's New Government Calls for Migrant Rights," TruthOut, January 5.
"A bruising 16-year battle, the fight brought together African American, white, and Mexican immigrant workers, who were able to find common ground despite the company’s attempts to use racial division and immigration enforcement to try to defeat them." "Common Ground on the Kill Floor: Organizing Smithfield,"Labor Notes, April 20.
In honor of Labor Day, online orders at Beacon.org are 20% off with the code LaborDay12. Offer ends Sept. 4, so shop now!
Bill Fletcher Jr. is the author of "They're Bankrupting Us!": And 20 Other Myths about Unions. Fletcher is a long-time racial-justice, labor, and international activist, scholar, and author. He has been involved in the labor movement for decades, and is a widely known speaker and writer in print and on radio, television, and the Web. He has served in leadership positions with many prominent union and labor organizations, including the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union. Fletcher is currently the director of field services for the American Federation of Government Employees. We conducted this Q&A with him via email in honor of the Labor Day holiday.
How have attitudes toward
labor unions changed in the United States over the past few decades?
Attitudes towards unions have fluctuated depending, in part, on what
segment of society you are talking about. More than half of non-union workers
would like to be in a union or an association of workers. This has been fairly
consistent. What has changed is that unions, particularly public sector unions,
have become punching bags for politicians. This might be the result of trying
to find ways of saving money that do not depend on raising taxes on the
wealthy, or there might be very ideological reasons. In either cases, the elite
in this society has turned on unions with ferocity. As unions have weakened, so
too has their presence in the media. As regular people know less and less about
unions, their opinions can be shaped and reshaped by anti-union forces in and
outside of the media.
Was there ever a time that
unions were viewed more favorably by the public and the media?
Absolutely. Here the answer depends, in part, on what part of the USA,
but in general in the 1930s-the late 1960s, unions were viewed very favorably. In
the 1930s and 1940s they were seen as being at the leadership of a movement for
social and economic justice. This became less true after the Cold War
devastated the unions and frightened them away from anything that was perceived
as being left-wing. But that said, unions were seen as helping to raise all
What are some of the greatest
difficulties that public unions face today?
State, county and municipal budgets rely to a great degree on
regressive taxes. As these bodies have allowed the wealthy and the corporations
to pay less in taxes (and/or get tremendous tax breaks) the revenue had to be
obtained elsewhere. Politicians began looking at public sector workers as a
convenient target. Additionally, as private sector workers have found
themselves to be victims of concessionary demands and, as a result, lose many hard-won
gains, they have often found themselves focusing their anger and resentment on
the public sector workers. Also, public sector unions face the constant threat
of privatization of jobs, so there is a regular defensive battle to protect
what they have. Public sector unions, in too many cases, stopped organizing,
whether that was with regard to other public sector workers or organizing
workers who worked in privatized facilities. In some respects, and quite
ironically, one of the greatest challenges facing public sector unions is to
figure out how to support the re-organizing of the private sector workforce. Federal
workers face many of the same threats as state, county and municipal workers,
and, as we have seen over the last few years, have been made scapegoats for
What do you see as the
biggest benefit of unionizing a workplace?
It provides workers with an opportunity to gain a voice in the
workplace; a possibility for raising their wages and benefits; and a means to
begin to democratize the workplace such that the workers end up having real
rights rather than being the subject of arbitrary treatment by employers.
What advice do you have for
workers interested in unionizing?
First, make sure that there is not, already, a
union at your workplace. If there is, speak with a representative of the union
about it. Second, go to www.aflcio.org
and read up on unions. Contact the central labor council—a body of unions from
across the board who meet regularly and attempt to coordinate their work
(central labor councils are usually at the county or municipal level)—and ask
them which union would be most appropriate for the type of the job in which you
work. Get some of your co-workers together and meet with a representative from
the union. Even if there is no union that covers your sort of job, put together
an informal committee of workers in your workplace who commit to working
together for justice in your workplace...and then call me.
Union members and allies are taking part in more than 1,000 events around the nation on and around April 4 in solidarity with working people in Wisconsin and dozens of other states where politicians are attempting to take away the rights of workers.
In the middle of a violent thunderstorm, with tornadoes and lightning touching down in the surrounding area, King arrived at Bishop Charles Mason Temple without a script, with a sore throat, and slightly ill. Violent weather prevented many people from coming, but nearly all thirteen hundred of Local 1733's members came, as did some of their strongest strike supporters. To this humble gathering, King poured out his last testament. He looked back through all of human history to this particular moment in time and called on people to appreciate their opportunity to once again change history.
You can read the entire speech, along with commentary by Michael Honey, in All Labor Has Dignity. You can read an excerpt of one of King's other speeches in the book, one he gave to union workers in Chicago in 1967, here or on Scribd. You can purchase this book for 20% off from Beacon.org using code APRIL4 from now until April 30, 2011.
I'm afraid to turn on my television. Really, it terrifies me. This is not based on a fear of alien mind-melt, a fear of governmental snooping, or a fear of the little people who live inside the box (no flat screen at my house).
I fear clicking the remote control because I live in Wisconsin. Click: teachers are sucking the state dry. Click: public employees are lazy bums. Click: those guys who plow my street again and again and again (and now once more) are just selfish. Click: collective bargaining rights, the right to help shape our own workplaces, are an unnecessary privilege exploited by the spoiled. Click: it's just petty of people with disabilities to think transportation is necessary to get to work. Click: let's pay everyone as little as we get can get away with. Click: education, the essential core of any democratic society, the best grounding for healthy human beings, the cause to which I've dedicated most of my waking hours since I was five years old, doesn't have to be that good and really isn't very important. Mediocrity, indeed, is just fine.
Really, I'm terrified to turn on my television.
Fear, however, is not helping me out. Fear doesn't make for happy people, fear doesn't lead to quality and transformative teaching, fear hinders parenting, and fear certainly obstructs good policy decisions. For my college students, fear is not a place from which good learning happens. Fear is just no fun. And because I'm a historian, and it's secret requirement of the Ph.D. that I quote FDR (don't tell anyone that I told you), "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."
Courage, I tell myself, courage despite fear. Courage to spite fear. At 8 a.m. I will walk before a classroom of students. I will convey to them that they can transform their lives, their family's lives, and their world for the better—and that an education is their tool to do so. That is, of course, why they are in my classroom.
My students, it turns out, have plenty of courage. Most of my students are of the first generation in their families to attend college. They fear not finding employment. They fear that their parents will lose the family home. They fear the loss, or the continued absence of, healthcare. They fear sitting in the classroom while being haunted by memories of rape, of military combat, of things they can't identify. They fear each tuition bill. They fear, more than anything, the loss of hope. They, however, are brave enough to show up in my classroom. And they need, they need, they need me to have hope.
Professor Nielsen, one announces proudly, I got a B on my biology exam. Another student emails me after class, thank you for your concern and I'm sorry I walked out of class but too many of my friends have been raped and I can't even think about these issues. Professor, says a particularly quiet young man, I worked harder on this paper than I've ever worked before. Another student stops by my office… for no stated reason at all, for the third time. One boisterous student who calls me Dr. Kim is thrilled because she just spoke to a state legislator for the very first time. Another cries because her mom attempted suicide, and at nineteen she has to care for her younger brother. One amazed student tells me over and over again that she just can't believe how cool the suffragist Alice Paul was. Amidst all of this, they bolster their courage, they try to study, and they seek meaning.
This morning I woke dispirited, but I need courage for my students and I need courage for me.
Over the last several weeks I've encountered tens of thousands of courageous Wisconsinites. A 12 year old gave her first public speech with a bullhorn, before 5,000 people, in the state capitol rotunda. I love my teachers, she proclaimed, and they deserve more money—not less. Off duty police officers, with signs proclaiming "cops for labor," handed out water to the chanting protesters circling my state capitol as we thanked them for their presence. A wonderful, gruff retired steelworker told me that he didn't think he'd have lived this long without the basic protections his union provides. I laughed along with an animated high school senior, who refused to be cowed by a Republican legislator who threatened to call her truancy officer after she'd spent a day protesting peacefully. She stood proud, proud of herself and of her many teachers who had laughed and hugged while insisting that they deserved the basic human right of collective bargaining. A man who cleans public buildings shows up at our local rallies and sings to the protesters. Assembly Representative Peter Barca, who guaranteed his constituents continued access to him by moving his desk to the cold Wisconsin outdoors after Governor Scott Walker locked the capitol building despite a court order, makes me smile and cheer (send that man wool socks). And the Wisconsin 14 –those wonderful, courageous state Democratic senators who reportedly are braving the wilds of Illinois—are my heroes (especially Dave Hansen, my local Green Bay senator).
The labor rights of the people of Wisconsin, and of the rest of the nation, matter and their loss will impact all of us. My students and the quality of their education matter. The man who plows my street matters. The disability activists who staged a sit-in at Wisconsin Republican Party headquarters matter. Frankly, I and my colleagues matter. And it is unconscionably immoral to have the goal of paying people as little as one possibly can. Most importantly, however, the emerging labor alliance of nurses, social workers, snow plow drivers, fire fighters, college professors, electricians, janitors, ship builders, teachers, and police officers are pivotal to the future economic and social health of this nation. We are the future—not the Koch brothers and not Wisconsin's Governor Scott Walker.