Labor Day: A "Moral Monday" makeover is needed

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AFL-CIOs MaryBe McMillan with NAACP President William Barber (to her right) at Labor Day rally in Raleigh
  • photo by Bob Geary
  • AFL-CIO's MaryBe McMillan with NAACP President William Barber (to her right) at Labor Day rally in Raleigh

Today, Monday, is Labor Day, an excellent day to consider the work of the Forward Together, a.k.a. Moral Monday movement. Because as State AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer MaryBe McMillan said this morning, "If ever a Monday needed a moral makeover, it's Labor Day."

McMillan spoke at a rally in Nash Square, in front of Raleigh City Hall, before getting on a bus with union members and leaders of the state NAACP, including the Rev. William Barber, the state president, and the Rev. Portia Rochelle, Raleigh-Apex branch president. They were headed for Labor Day events in Greensboro and Charlotte.

It should be clear, but isn't, that an economic crisis is unfolding in the United States and around the world. Corporate profits are soaring, executive pay and shareholder returns are beyond defensible and getting more ridiculous by the day. Yet work — the ordinary work which sustains corporations and which is supposed to sustain the rest of humanity — pays less and less.

Worse, there's less and less work to go around. Temp jobs, part-time jobs and high unemployment all serve to keep wages down even as workers' productivity rises and corporations cash in.

All this, McMillan said, is no accident. It is the result of business decisions and government policies which protect investors' profits at the expense of labor and what we used to think of as the social compact.

Nor is the solution "rocket science," she added. Rather, it's to pay workers a living wage—enough money that a full-time worker can support herself or himself.

Raising workers' pay will add to the economy, not hurt it, and more jobs will be created as a result — though billionaires may have to do with somewhat less.

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The divergence of corporate and political policies from human needs is perhaps our world's greatest moral challenge. Or perhaps our greatest challenge is climate change, which threatens human survival. But the source of the two is the same: It's a systemic failure to share resources — natural, environmental, technological and human — in a way that sustains the planet and the people living on it.

The Rev. Spencer Bradford, head of Durham Congregations in Action, put it this way: "God has given us enough for everyone to have enough."

It really is that simple. Whether you believe in a god or gods or simply survival, if we allow corporations to exploit the earth to the point that it cannot or does not sustain all of us, people will die. They're dying now.

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Corporations operate on the profit motive and the wealthy rake in the wealth in a capitalist system until checked by human beings organized as workers and as citizens. Such organization can take the form of labor unions. It can take the form of a labor, environmental and social-justice movement. In most advanced societies, though not in the United States, it takes the form of a political party — a Labor Party.

Here, because of our winner-take-all elections (no proportional representation as in parliamentary systems), we have two political parties only. One, the Republican Party, no longer pays any attention to worker or environmental interests. Sorry, but it doesn't. The other, the Democratic Party, pays some attention, but not enough. Not nearly enough. And for the foreseeable future, the Republicans' iron grip on the U.S. House of Representatives as well as a majority of state legislatures, including North Carolina's, means that even the meekest efforts by the Democrats to lift up labor and protect the planet are stymied.

The challenge, in the long run, is to breathe life into one or the other of the two parties, presumably the Democratic Party. It's a challenge made harder by the weakness of labor unions in this country and especially in North Carolina, the least unionized state in the nation.

Fortunately, we have a starting point here with the Forward Together-Moral Monday movement. It is that second form of organization I mentioned, not a union and not a political party, but a force that may be strong enough to revitalize labor and restore the Democrats.

(Although the movement is officially nonpartisan, and the Rev. Barber is emphatic that the Republican Party's roots are in progressive policies, as much as modern-day Republicans have forsaken them.)

And it's more than a starting point. Moral Mondays burst on the scene last year in North Carolina in response to corporatist legislation from the General Assembly, but the groundwork for a labor-environmental movement with a moral foundation was laid starting in 2005—as Barber emphasized this morning — when the NAACP and the AFL-CIO joined forces and began to build alliances with churches, conservation groups and social-justice organizations around the state.

The movement's agenda, Barber noted, the 14-point People's Assembly platform, leads with a call for paying livable wages and for good, desegregated public schools.

Organizing labor unions is made more difficult by the ability of corporations to close an operation here and move it there — to another state or another country — in order to avoid paying workers more. Getting the Democrats to represent labor's interests or the planet's is made difficult by the power of money in politics, money which corporate interests are all too happy to supply and Democrats too happy to take.

But all the money in the world can't out-vote a workers' and citizens' movement that demands that its elected representatives protect humanity first. The Moral Monday movement is growing, spreading to other states, and with it campaigns are springing up to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour immediately — a position supported by almost every Democratic official in the country — and thereafter to livable-wage levels.

Here in North Carolina, the major political battle is for the seat in the U.S. Senate held now by Democrat Kay Hagan, who is challenged by Republican Thom Tillis, speaker of the N.C. House.

Hagan, who proudly proclaims that she is the most moderate senator in Washington, nonetheless is for the $10.10 minimum wage. Tillis has declared the very idea of a minimum wage, no matter how low, "dangerous."

For the movement, the immediate fight is to re-elect Hagan and force the Tillis brand of Republicans to reevaluate their disdain for workers.

Doing so will help to foster, as McMillan said, "a new labor movement not limited by the walls of a workplace" or the ability of a corporation to pick up and move to a different location.

In a new labor movement, founded on moral principles, we can tackle climate change before it's too late. We can lift wages so that everyone who wants to work can earn enough for a decent life. We can honor work and its ability to sustain us, in other words, and stop worshipping money for money's sake.

I believe that's the moral makeover McMillan called for this Labor Day.

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