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American workers deserve respect

Labor Day should have reminded us how unions built the middle class

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The middle class would not exist without organized labor,” Vice President Joe Biden proclaimed, more than once, during his recent speech at the AFL-CIO 25th annual Labor Day picnic. He is entirely right. With our nation’s unemployment stuck at more than nine percent, with millions of Americans futilely looking for good jobs, the need for strong unions has never been as great.

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 united!”

There is a systematic attack on America’s middle class, on workers in particular. Reckless failed 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 all evidence a thinly veiled campaign to silence American workers and profit at their expense.

The assault is not working. What started in Wisconsin, when thousands of union members clad in red battled to keep the rights they earned through their collective voice, has become a national struggle. The stakes are enormous, and there is no place for bystanders.

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 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, more than a million people joined in petitioning for a state referendum to overturn it. A sea of red is spilling into the streets.

Even if you do not believe, as I do, that organized labor is the best path to a solid middle class and that collective bargaining helps advance the shared prosperity we need in our nation, you must join the fight for fairness. This struggle is not for or against unions: It is about respect for American workers and the value of their labor.

The few who are at the top of income are grabbing our economy’s financial gains, leaving nothing for workers, whose increased productivity has resulted in record corporate profits. CEO pay continues to rise at an obscenely disproportionate rate, jumping a whopping 27 percent in 2010, while the pay of workers in the private sector grew slightly more than two percent. This fundamental unfairness must end. The battle will be fought at the work site and at every polling place throughout America.

Last month, 45,000 brave workers went on strike against Verizon Communications, a multinational corporation that has received more than $22.5 billion in profit during the past 4 1/2 years. The strike has since been put on hold while union officials negotiate a new contract with Verizon. Shockingly, the company 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 more than $20,000 in annual concessions.

I hope that across America, millions of workers see that fight for what it is: yet another attempt to devalue labor and silence workers. Our nation’s corporations must be brought to understand they can remain competitive, be profitable, and do right by their workers. It’s important for all of us to actively support American workers who seek fair treatment for everyone: namely, fair wages for work and protection of such rightfully earned benefits as Social Security and Medicare.

Everyone should join the protestors clad in red, the unemployed and underemployed, and business leaders who want to do right by workers. Those voices ask every single one of us, including CEOs such as myself, to do our part and pay our fair share to rebuild our great nation and our middle class.

It’s time to celebrate the spirit of the American worker and join together to protect the American middle class.

Roger Smith is the president and CEO of American and National Income Life Insurance Companies. Send comments via the opinion editor at econnolly@newtimesslo.com.

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