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May 1998
Vol.1 No. 8 Page 9

Union Labor Means A Strong Middle Class

By Senator Tom Harkin

Right now, America's economy is booming. The federal budget is balanced. In fact, Congress is faced with a budget surplus for the first time in a long time. The stock market continues to soar, and many people are becoming wealthy in these good times.

And I have often said, there is nothing wrong with making money in America, there's nothing wrong with having a better home, a nicer care and a better life.

That's an important part of the American Dream.

But I believe that when you make it to the top or I make it to the top, one of our primary responsibilities is to make sure we leave the ladder down for others to climb, too.

In the middle of such great economic times, the gap between real income levels of rich and poor people has grown dramatically. That doesn't make sense. Some top executives are pulling in big bonuses even as. their workers are being fired. Clearly, some people are pulling up the ladder behind them, because not everyone is benefiting from our current economic expansion.

Now mind you, I didn't say that opportunity should be an escalator. There shouldn't be a free ride. With a ladder you still have to exert energy and effort and responsibility to get to the top. But the structure, the ladder, has to be there.

Our labor laws are part of that structure. There are many issues currently in Congress that are of interest to organized labor and you need to make your views known if you want Congress to pass laws that uphold your values and protect your livelihoods and your families. Values like opportunity, dignity and respect. Values like responsibility and providing workers with a living wage, safety on the job, quality health care and security in retirement.

Let's look at the issues. Senate Bill 1423 is supposed to be a bill to reform OSHA, but that bill will really disable OSHA's ability to keep you safe. S. 1423 could exempt up to 87 percent of employers from regular inspections. That means 68 percent of all workers, some 66.6 million Americans, might face less protection while at work.

This bill also strips workers of their fundamental right to have OSHA inspect serious workplace hazards and weakens OSHA enforcement by giving OSHA the discretion to issue warning lieu of citations even for serious violations.

Don't get me wrong. OSHA could stand some reforming. We just need to be sure that we do it in a way that protects American workers instead of placing them in jeopardy. OSHA is a vital rung on the ladder of opportunity, so we need to strengthen that rung not tear it out.

Without OSHA, we risk returning to the days when going work could be hazardous to your health. Indeed, going to work still hazardous for many Americans as our nation records thousands sands of occupational deaths, injuries and illnesses each year.

Having a safe workplace is important but it doesn't mean in if you are physically safe at work but financially on the brink home. We are working on several fronts to keep American workers on secure financial footing.

First, having equal pay for equal work will free working women from some of the stresses that come when "there's much month at the end of the money." Women earn only about three-fourths of what a man would earn in a comparable posit That means less economic security for families and children less income to spend on housing, health care, clothing and food.

How can a working woman reasonably expect to climb the ladder of opportunity under such conditions? Our proposals to dress this inequality allow for differences in education, experience and productivity.

They also prohibit businesses from lowering men's pay to achieve equity. All workers benefit when such common sense approaches are undertaken and businesses benefit by being able maintain high standards and highly skilled workers.

Second, workers need some sense of job security when tend to family matters. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) all employees in companies with 50 or more employees to take up 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn or newly adopted child or to be with a family member who is seriously ill without of losing their job.

Almost 90 percent of the businesses covered by the law have found that family leave is easy to administer and costs them little or nothing. Today, almost half of all American workers share important benefit, giving them the opportunity to continue up ladder of opportunity.

However, half of all American workers do not have this opportunity. That's why we all need to work to lower FMLA's threshold to businesses with 25 employees or more and expand family leave to cover children's doctor visits and parent-teacher conferences so that many more Americans will be able to fulfill their responsibilities to their families and their workplaces. This issue provides organized labor with the chance to strengthen the ladder for as many workers as possible.

There will be no chance for labor to act on behalf of its members if some in Congress have their way. I'm taking, of course, of so-called "paycheck protection."

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees President Gerald McEntee recently noted in this same forum that the various forms of this legislation "share the common characteristic of barring unions from using members' dues on lobbying, political education (including distribution of voter guides) and even participating in the formulation of government policies which directly impact on our members' lives."

Talk about pulling the ladder up behind you.

For me is boils down to this: when organized labor is strong, the middle class is strong. And when the middle class is strong, America is strong. Labor unions have always been a strong voice for their members. All of you have to work together to ensure that unions are able to continue in that role and that no one removes the rungs from anyone else's ladder of opportunity.

Source: Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) wrote this article for the American Income Life Insurance Company's monthly newsletter, AIL Labor Agenda. It appeared in the May issue. It was sent to The Summit City Mailbag via the US Mail. All reprint credits must include this line. AIL is an all union insurance company. Send your comments to: American Income Life Insurance Company, 1000 Conn. Ave., N.W., Suite 1103, Washington, D.C. 20036. For Internet information go to:
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