Wish-lists of progressive public policies never change the world. But they sometimes do excite the people who can.
Just in time for Labor Day 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor has enshrined the latest member of the Labor Hall of Fame the Department created back in 1988.
And who gets this honor, a tribute that has gone to real heroes like Cesar Chavez, the legendary farmworker organizer, and Tony Mazzocchi, the moving force behind federal worker safety protections?
No joke. An honor created to salute “those Americans whose distinctive contributions in the field of labor have elevated working conditions, wages, and over-all quality of life of America’s working families” has gone to a President of the United States who “became the most powerful union buster in the world” and “stacked the National Labor Relations Board with officials who vehemently opposed unions.”
Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta announced the new honor in a ceremony at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in California. Reagan, Acosta noted, served as the president of the Screen Actors Guild, the movie-industry union, in the 1940s. He made no mention of the union that Reagan destroyed, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization.
In 1981, only months after Reagan entered the White House, PATCO members struck for a shorter workweek and higher wages. Reagan fired 11,000 strikers, a norm-shattering move that gave America’s employers, in effect, a green light to permanently replace strikers.
Today, three dozen years later, the American labor movement has still not recovered. Back in the 1950s, one of every three American workers carried union cards. By 1989, the year Reagan left the White House, only one in six American workers belonged to a trade union.
What impact has this fading union presence had? Wages in the United States have, after adjusting for inflation, not increased since the early 1970s. And inequality has soared. Back in the 1950s, America’s richest 10 percent took in less than a third of the nation’s income. In 2015, the Economic Policy Institute points out, that top 10 percent captured nearly half America’s income, 47.8 percent.
Ronald Reagan did not, of course, single-handedly generate this inequality. Attacks on the right to organize unions in America’s workplaces began before he took office and continued long after he left.
In fact, those attacks are still going strong today — and these days, in the Trump era, they’re even coming from right inside the Department of Labor.
The latest sorry example: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Labor Department agency that Hall of Fame honoree Tony Mazzocchi fought so hard to create, has erased off the OSHA website home page a running list of all Americans killed on the job.
That list included the date, name, and cause of death of each workplace fatality and served as a public shaming of sorts for the employers involved. Killing the spotlight on this list, notes the National Employment Law Project’s Debbie Berkowitz, amounts to “a conscious decision to bury the fact that workers are getting killed on the job.”
Ronald Reagan did his best, as President, to do the same thing. To head OSHA, Reagan appointed a Florida construction company executive. That’s executive’s claim to worker safety fame? He had earlier, as his CV crowed, “organized the lobbying effort which killed the adoption of the Occupational Safety and Health Act by the State of Florida.”
Now Ronald Reagan sits in the Labor Department Hall of Fame. That could only happen in the deeply unequal America that Ronald Reagan did so much to help create.
Sam Pizzigati, an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, co-edits Inequality.org. His latest book — The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970 — traces how average Americans ended the nation’s original Gilded Age. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.
Inequality.org co-editor Sam Pizzigati introduces his history of the successful struggle that toppled America’s original plutocracy.