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Restore workers’ rights

Republicans and conservatives talk about the law of supply and demand as if law had nothing to do with it. For millennia, the law of supply and demand meant slavery. In Europe, where we whites trace our ancestry, it was called serfdom, was pervasive and almost certainly included some of your ancestors. Serfdom may have been less cruel than slavery as practiced here before the Civil War, but serfdom involved such things as the right of the master to your daughters’ virginity. It wasn’t nice. The Hebrew Bible put limits on slavery without eliminating it. The medieval Catholic Church had rules about slavery, about who could enslave which Europeans. Christians, Muslims, and Africans themselves played dominant roles in the African trade. More recently, women were their husbands’ slaves, taking a vow to obey. What was called indentured servitude was time-bound “voluntary” slavery. Those were economic decisions by women and parents.

Why did it stop, to the extent it did? Religion, revolution and law. Spanish Dominican clerics made the case that slavery was a violation of natural law, which also caught on in Scotland. The French revolted against rule by the aristocracy. The American Revolution made aristocratic titles unconstitutional and freedom central to Revolutionary ideology, though some Americans thought freedom only applied to themselves. Gradually law changed. States outlawed slavery before the Thirteenth Amendment made it nationally illegal. The British banned the slave trade and eventually slavery itself. Eventually, during our own Civil War, the Russian Czar ended serfdom. And early in the twentieth century, the US Supreme Court held that peonage, a form of voluntary slavery, was also illegal. The law of supply and demand is the law of the strong over the weak and there are no boundaries.

So how come the American worker enjoyed a golden age? They formed unions. But unions were only as good as the law. In the 19th and early 20th century, federal, state and local troops fought, fired at and killed strikers. Union members and organizers were driven out by corporations and their police. Only passage of the National Labor Relations Act in the 30s, under Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt, began to give us civilized labor relations and give the American worker a fair shake.

Corporations and their Republican allies tried to take it all back. They passed the Taft-Hartley Act over the veto of Democratic President Harry Truman. Whenever and wherever Republicans held power they cut back workers’ rights. Democrats kept trying to restore them but the filibuster in the Senate made it impossible.

It is time to recognize that the filibuster is the work of the devil and get rid of it. Today people work for hourly pay without security about how many hours they’ll get or whether they’ll have a job at all, with no limit on how long they’ll have to work or how little sleep they’ll get – and no medical or retirement benefits. I remember a swim coach who trained Olympic gold medal swimmers in Russia but brought his family here for medical care after Chernobyl. This enormously talented and skilled swim coach worked three jobs in this country just to put food on his family’s table. That’s what supply and demand is like.

That’s why law is necessary – why we needed Social Security and Medicare and need to improve both and add child care – because many corporations and the pittances they give workers don’t pay for retirement, medical care, or child care, because supply and demand leaves workers falling through the cracks until they’re unemployed, homeless and hopeless. And that’s why we need to end the filibuster and restore workers’ rights and the unions that protect them.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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