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Lifting Up Working Families, Labor Day 2015

Photo of Chicago factory from 1940 Schwinn catalog


By William McNary Co-Director Citizen Action/Illinois

Let me tell you the story of an African-American man who left Tennessee to come to Chicago in the 1950s where he met and married a woman who had come to Chicago from Alabama.  They gave birth to five children.  One child died when he was two days old.

The father worked two to three jobs, so he could provide for his wife and four kids.  He moved furniture.  He drove a delivery truck.  He drove a cab.  He delivered pizzas.  He seldom spent time with his kids and he was always tired when he came home.  He went to bed late and he got up early.

One day a friend told him about a job at a factory on Kostner Avenue in Chicago. He was lucky enough to get that job and he worked hard for eight hours every day helping to produce one of the finest bicycles in the world; a Schwinn Bicycle.

And because it was a union job, he not only got a decent wage; he got health insurance benefits for himself and his family. And he began to spend more time with his family and his four children. He took his family to the annual company picnic where one of his sons would always win the eating contest. He gave his family a middle-class life which allowed his oldest son to be the first one in the history of his family to ever attend college. 

That man was my dad and I am his oldest son.  (By the way, it was my brother Fred who won the pie eating contests.  But all four of us got to attend college.)

Regular hours, a living wage, health care – these things are the building blocks of the middle class. Having them allowed my father to spend quality time with his family, meant his children opportunities that he never had, and enabled us to live a meaningful and fulfilling life.

This Labor Day, labor is under attack like never before. Governor Rauner is quick to point the blame for our state’s fiscal woes on labor unions. But this is not just an attack on the labor union movement; it is an attack on the middle class. It’s an attack on our democracy.  Attacking the middle class will not produce prosperity. In fact, states with higher numbers of unionized workers have higher standards of living including better benefits, less poverty, lower infant mortality, fewer workplace fatalities, and greater investment in public education.

Fifty-two years ago, the momentous March on Washington took place. Dr. King was not just some idealistic dreamer; he fought to make his dreams a reality. The last fight that Dr. King waged was the fight to unionize garbage workers in Memphis. The reason he was in Memphis was to support underpaid city garbage workers who were demanding that the city recognize their right to organize and join a union.

Dr. King said: “Too many people of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation.  They have deplored prejudice, but tolerated or ignored economic injustice.  But these two evils have a malignant kinship.”  Dr. King understood that we cannot have racial justice without economic justice. He understood that you cannot have civil rights without labor rights. If our country is supposed to be a democracy and not a corporate state, its people must have freedom. Not just freedom of speech or freedom of religion or freedom of assembly, but we must also have freedom from hunger, freedom from lack, and freedom from poverty.

Thus one definition of democracy is shared prosperity. The promise of America should be for everyone, not just the wealthy few. That is what this struggle is about and why Governor Rauner will lose at his attempt to destroy the labor unions of Illinois. Unions are one of keys to democracy. In America we have the right of the people to peaceably assemble, not just in the political process, but in the workplace as well.

Citizen Action wishes all the dedicated workers of Illinois a Happy Labor Day!  Labor and the Community Working Together! We all do better when we ALL do better!”