Collective Bargaining: The Bone and Sinew of Resistance
September 5, 2016 by Teague Paterson
This Labor Day marks the beginning of the end of a long and bitter election season, one that has revealed striking divisions within America’s political parties and stark contrasts in each party’s vision of America. Through the primary season and into the general election we have read reams of copy purporting to explain what the American worker thinks and where she stands this election. Multiple and varying, often unpersuasive, conclusions have been offered. What is clear is that American workers of all political stripes are in varying measures angry or apathetic, and overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the order of things. That is a dangerous situation for our republic.
Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894. In recommending Congress’ adoption of the holiday, the House Committee on Labor reported: “So long as the laboring man can feel that he holds an honorable as well as a useful place in the body politic, so long will he be a loyal and faithful citizen.” To be sure, in 1894 women and people of color were excluded from these rights, which were then closely held by white men. Nonetheless the concept was an American ideal, offering a Labor Day holiday to promote workers’ personal stakes in participatory democracy and foster their civic engagement, and to serve as a contrast to International Workers Day, a more militant byproduct of Chicago’s 1886 Haymarket Affair.
That working peoples’ participation in American democracy was critical to the vitality of the republic resulted, forty years later, in the passage of the Wagner Act — the National Labor Relations Act — which secured the right to organize and collectively bargain. It was a central plank in Roosevelt’s New Deal. As Senator Wagner stated to the New York Times:
That is why the struggle for a voice in industry, through the processes of collective bargaining is at the heart of the struggle for the preservation of political as well as economic democracy in America. Let men become the servile pawns of their masters in the factories of the land and there will be destroyed the bone and sinew of resistance to political dictatorship.
Today, can most workers reasonably feel they hold a position of status within the body politic? Have our elected leaders abandoned the concept that workers who daily engage in a process of self-determination and advocacy on the shop floor are, when approaching the ballot box, better equipped to recognize demagoguery, and sift through its false promises, its appeals to prejudices and fear?
New research suggests a link between labor’s independent political engagement and maintaining credibility and union density over time, and that collective bargaining is an “antidote” to wage decline. More worrisome is the likelihood that as labor rights are diminished, so too are our democratic values.
 H.R. 28, 53rd Cong., 2nd sess., H.Rept. 902 (Washington: GPO, 1894), p. 1.
 Robert F. Wagner, The Ideal Industrial State As Wagner Sees It, N.Y. Times, May 9, 1937, p.23
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