By Roger Smith
“The middle class would not exist without organized labor.” So proclaimed Vice President Joe Biden at a recent speech in Ohio. He’s right. And with unemployment stuck above 9 percent, the need for strong unions has never been greater. I am the CEO of an international life insurance company. If you think a management perspective automatically means opposition to labor unions, think again. I am humbled to witness the impact of millions of workers’ voices as they proudly affirm, “Workers matter, and we are one!”
America’s middle class and workers are under systematic attack. Our failed and reckless economic policies, the Wall Street raid on Main Street, the coddling of millionaires and billionaires, and the gaming of a tax system that favors Big Corporations and offshore tax havens – taken together, all of these amount to a thinly veiled attempt to silence American workers and profit at their expense. It isn’t working. What started in Wisconsin with thousands of union members clad in red, battling to keep the rights they earned through their collective voice, has transformed into a national struggle. The stakes are towering, and there is no place for bystanders.
Havens of hope are turning up everywhere. A record number of Wisconsin voters spoke in a recent recall election. Though they fell short of reclaiming a state senate majority in favor of workers’ rights, they won back two seats and reenergized the spirit of American workers, who are now readying themselves for the next round at the ballot box. In Ohio, when the state legislature approved SB 5, a bill that gutted years of hard-won worker rights, over 1 million people joined in petitioning for a state referendum to overturn it. Once again, a sea of red is spilling into the streets. Even if you don’t believe, as I do, that organized labor is the surest path to a solid middle class and that collective bargaining creates the type of shared prosperity we need in this country, you must join the fight for fairness.
This is not about union or non-union. It’s about respect for American workers and the value of their labor. The few at the top are grabbing all the gains for themselves, leaving nothing for the workers whose increased productivity has resulted in record corporate profits. CEO pay jumped 27 percent in 2010, while the pay of workers in the private sector grew little over 2 percent. This fundamental unfairness must come to an end. This battle will be fought at the worksite and at every polling place in America. Last month, 45,000 courageous workers went on strike against Verizon, a corporation with over $22.5 billion of profits in the past four and a half years.
The strike has since been put on hold while union officials negotiate a new contract with Verizon. Shockingly, Verizon wants to renege on benefits for retirees, eliminate sick days for new hires, abolish disability benefits for workers injured on the job, outsource company jobs, and stick already struggling families with over $20,000 in annual concessions. I hope millions of America’s workers see this fight for what it is – another attempt to devalue labor and silence workers. American corporations must be brought to understand that they can remain competitive, be profitable and do right by their workers.
It’s important that we support American workers seeking a fundamental transformation to a fair shake for all: a fair wage while working and protection for rightfully earned benefits like Social Security and Medicare. All people of goodwill should join our protestors clad in red, the unemployed and underemployed, and business leaders who want to do right by our workers. Their voices ask all of us, including CEOs such as myself, to do our part and pay our fair share in rebuilding our great country and our middle class. Roger Smith is the president and CEO of American and National Income Life Insurance Companies.