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ISSUE 121 VOL 11 PUBLISHED 2/22/2008

Scholar links democracy, grassroots union movement

By Aaron Rozanski
Associate Editor

Friday, February 22, 2008

Courage and citizenship were the focus in Viking Theater Tuesday night when the St. Olaf Political Awareness Committee (PAC) kicked off Civic Engagement Week. Visiting Woodrow Wilson scholar Bob Muehlenkamp presented his research, entitled What Would America Be without Unions and spoke on behalf of the declining rate and image of union membership.

The biggest difference between the last two generations, and the problems we have seen arise from it, is the weakening of unions and labor movements, Muehlenkamp claimed.

Much of the presentation centered on the declining rate of union membership in the United States. From the 1960s, when membership spiked to 35 percent of the general population, the fate of vibrant trade labor movements and unions now seems suspect in Muehlenkamps eyes, as today membership has fallen to a mere seven percent.

To the extent that you have weak unions, you have weak democracy, he stated. With the non-union vote being split even [in Wisconsin], each at 50 percent, nothing would have changed if not for the union vote.

Muehlenkamp presented many sets of data to illustrate the effects of trade unions on the American society, particularly in the areas of living standards, politics, legislation and democracy. Crucial issues of stagnant wages and income inequality are always on the publics mind, and to show their profound effects on American lives he pointed out a few trends.

After the war, there was a connection between productivity and wages, he said. That connection has been separated.

Muehlenkamp is a leading trade union organizer and activist for social justice. Having served as a consultant for various organizations, he has founded the Wal-Mart Social Justice Project and co-founded the U.S. Labor Against the War.

With such an extensive background in the field of labor relations, it was reassuring, although perhaps surprising, to hear how he began.

I was a teacher and was unhappy with my job, so I started a union, Muehlenkamp briefly responded when asked how he got his inspiration for all the work he has done. I never thought I would.

This grassroots element of the movement was present throughout the entire evening, as he incorporated key issues that he continually proclaimed affect 90 percent of Americans. He presented cases of minimum wage, job benefits and the availability for pensions, and sees the importance for the ability of workers to organize in order to safeguard their rights, as well as democracy.

Looking back on an article he had read, he said, I was astonished to see the headline: The bottom 80 percent, only to in later months see the headline: The bottom 90 percent.

While the lecture itself focused on how America would look if unions did not exist, the workings of important bodies such as the American Labor Movement and Working America were also addressed. Specifically, their abilities to educate members about key issues that influence their lives is what Muehlenkamp sees as crucial to the democratic process.

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