Building Trades' Mission to Improve Workers' Quality of Life Continues in 2017
February 2017 - As we begin 2017, preparing to continue the long and never-ending quest to maintain and improve the financial well-being and quality of life for California’s Building Trades workers and their families, it is an appropriate time to reflect on our history of struggles and accomplishments.
Let’s remember the terrible conditions workers were forced to endure until the relatively recent past, and how the rise of unions in the 1930s helped pull our nation out of the Great Depression, and then to unprecedented economic prosperity in the decades following the second world war. Millions of American workers brought this progress about with tenacious and unflagging unity.
Looking back at the way things were before unions, enables us to see clearly the great dangers we continue to face if we ever lose our resolve and our unity. History proves that many in the wealthy, ruling class, if left to their own devices, will happily sacrifice the quality of life, economic well-being, the health and safety, and the very lives of working people if it pads their profit margins.
Before unions, wages were so poor that workers considered themselves lucky if they could afford an occasional decent meal for their families, the rest of the time they lived on scraps. There were no minimum wage laws, so employers paid as little as they could. In fact, some operators paid workers not in cash but in company scrip, redeemable only at the company store. Work for nothing or starve. That was the choice.
Likewise, there were no limits on the hours a worker could be forced to endure. There was no law mandating an eight-hour day or 40-hour week. So workers contributed virtually every waking moment of their day, 16 hours or more, seven days a week, without meal or rest breaks or overtime pay.
Conditions were appalling. Workers were commonly sickened, injured, and even killed by their workplaces. There were no laws mandating health and safety standards. Dangerous conditions and hazards were the norm.
There were no restrictions on child labor. Children were expected to work alongside their parents as part of the deal for a job; in mines, fields, mills, and everywhere else their labor could reap extra profits for the owners.
There was no thought of providing health care for workers. When workers got sick, there was no sick pay of medical care for them. If someone became too sick to work, they were simply discarded. There was no job and no paycheck; no way to stay alive.
In fact there was no safety net of any kind. There were no pensions, no social security, unemployment insurance or workers’ compensation.
None of this changed until the Great Depression arrived, and workers forced the changes by organizing and forming unions, acting in unity to elect public officials who listened to their voices.
The election of President Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and the launching of the New Deal policies in the years that followed, inaugurated the period of the greatest improvement for quality of life for the greatest number of workers. It is no coincidence that this was the time of great union ascendancy, giving workers an effective political voice.
What followed were the first child labor laws, the minimum wage, the Social Security Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act to ensure living wages and hours for workers. Unions got the federal Davis-Bacon Act and state laws passed to assure area prevailing wages for construction workers on public works projects. That was followed by the Occupational Health and Safety Act, to ensure workplaces didn’t threaten the lives and health of the people working there. Workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance laws followed.
This was also a time of massive, unprecedented investment in public works projects, allowing workers to make a living wage building the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, and other projects that continue to serve us well almost a century later.
Here in California in recent years, we have accomplished even more, making workers and their families even more secure, and workplaces and communities safer and less hazardous.
This progress can be sustained only by a never-ending quest by determined working people, who are tenaciously united in their mission to never again allow the wealthy ruling class to condemn us to lives of poverty and misery. We must never allow this unity and determination to weaken. Our children and grandchildren are counting on us.
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