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10 Modern Heroes of the American Labor Movement


Once upon a time in America, “union” was not a dirty word. At the turn of the 20th century, organized labor became a force to be reckoned with and its leaders heroes and household names. Samuel Gompers. Eugene V. Debs. Later, Walter Reuther and John L. Lewis. But then decline set in. The Taft-Hartley Act. A palpable shift in the public’s perception of unions. Decreasing membership. While unions still maintain a presence in American politics, today’s labor heroes often come as community organizers, or local politicians, or even college professors. This Labor Day is the perfect time to recognize the men and women who carry on the fight for the average American to be paid an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work.

  1. Lucas Benitez:

    If Harriet Tubman had a kid with Cesar Chavez, it would be Lucas Benitez. Born in Mexico, he migrated to the U.S. to support his family and soon found himself rescuing farm workers from slavery in Florida and helping unite hundreds of Mexican, Haitian, and Guatemalan tomato pickers into the Coalition of Immokalee Workers after a fellow worker was severely beaten for taking a drink of water. Still a young man at 35, Benitez continues to work as an “animator” (as he thinks of himself), leading the CIW to a legal victory over McDonald’s for higher wages in 2007 and struggling to hold the kingpins of Florida tomato-growing accountable.

  2. The Wisconsin 14:

    Shortly after taking office in 2011, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker proposed a budget repair bill that would decrease government worker’s pay by about 7% and strip most unions in the state of their ability to collective bargain. As the world watched, thousands of teachers and other state employees came to the Capitol to demonstrate and protest. On Feb. 17, 14 Democrat state senators left the state in order to stall a vote on the bill. The protestors called them heroes and began to wear buttons and make signs celebrating the “Fighting 14” and the “Fab 14.” The crowd used their example to keep the demonstrations going strong well into March, when the 14 finally returned. And although the bill went through in the end, the politicians’ stand was a seminal act in the annals of the American labor movement.

  3. Ai-jen Poo:

    Poo first made waves in the labor movement in the early 2000s. The group Domestic Workers United, which Poo founded, successfully lobbied for the rights of domestic workers in New York City in 2003. In 2010, their efforts convinced New York State politicians to become the first state to ensure the rights to maternity leave, overtime, and severance pay for domestic workers. Today Poo heads the National Domestic Workers Alliance, where she works to ease the conditions she believes more and more Americans, not just domestics, are facing, like unstable employment and no benefits. Poo has California in her sights for the next bill of rights like the one passed in New York and hopes that a new attention to workers’ rights will begin to arise around the country.

  4. Larry Cohen:

    Larry Cohen is a new kind of labor boss. Jimmy Hoffa was loud and proud and never missed an opportunity to grab a headline. As the head of the 700,000-member Communication Workers of America, Cohen could command attention, but prefers to keep the focus on the organizing and the issues, like his work helping negotiate contracts at AT&T, Verizon, and Cingular. He also founded American Rights at Work, a non-profit dedicated to promoting democracy and collective bargaining in the workplace. But Cohen does make his voice heard when necessary, whether it’s urging a mass movement in America to get the money out of politics and restore workers’ rights or calling for solidarity among workers throughout the global village.

  5. Pete Seeger:

    Few people manage to be a modern anything at the age of 93, but Pete Seeger has been a labor activist since as far back as the ’40s and continues to be a hero of the movement. The folk singer and songwriter has produced some of the most enduring anthems about workers’ rights that protestors today still sing, including Solidarity Forever, Which Side Are You On?, and The Talking Union Blues. Last October, Seeger joined Occupy Wall Street protestors and led them in rousing chants of some of his protest songs, an act that moved even the police on the scene.

  6. Danny Glover:

    So many times he told us in Lethal Weapon that he was too old for this … stuff. But Danny Glover has never outgrown his youthful passion for activism in a number of national and international social issues, labor included. His high profile helps draw attention to fights that might otherwise go ignored by the mainstream media. Case in point: his 2010 arrest at a protest of workers’ unfair treatment at a food service company in Maryland. In July, he met with workers at Nissan to encourage them to join the United Auto Workers. He told them, “I’m here to be a part of what you’re doing. … People need to know they don’t have to be afraid.”

  7. Noam Chomsky:

    You won’t find him being maced by cops in Zuccotti Park; no, Noam Chomsky is not a hero along that line. The battle he wages on behalf of American labor is an intellectual one. Widely regarded as one of America’s finest political thinkers, the MIT professor emeritus uses his significant name-recognition and understanding of history to shine the light on the tactics and the policies that have crushed the labor movement into its current state. He recently published Occupy, a book that expressed his support for the movement, calling it “the first major public response to thirty years of class war.” Although often derided by conservatives as a liberal, he is perfectly comfortable comparing Reagan’s destruction of unions to Clinton’s. He is less concerned with politics and more concerned with helping the labor movement remember where it came from and illuminating the way to a new day.

  8. John Burton:

    When Burton retired from politics in 2004, the California Journal lamented the California Senate’s loss of its “loudest voice for protection of workers.” Indeed, as the Senate’s President Pro Tem he had fought for expansion of employee-financed health care for over 1 million workers in the state and was instrumental in helping the United Farm Workers union gain the ability to mediate in contract negotiations. He continues to be held as a friend and hero of labor from his post as the chairman of the California Democratic Party, where he has been tackling the problem of homelessness in the Golden State.

  9. Stephen Lerner:

    Wall Street bigwigs are finding out what employers all over the country already knew for years: Stephen Lerner means business. The Justice for Janitors campaign was a Lerner creation begun in 1985, involving numerous strikes across the country that resulted in successful contract agreements. Eventually the group came to comprise 225,000 janitors in America and it is still fighting for their rights. Since 2008, Lerner has directed his considerable influence with the Service Employees International Union and talent for grassroots mobilization toward the banking industry. He has called for crashing the stock market and has organized labor and community groups to combat predatory lending, furthering big business’ dislike of him and the average worker’s appreciation for him.

  10. Eliseo Medina:

    As a teenage grape-picker in California in the ’60s, Eliseo Medina cut his teeth striking for better wages and being beaten by teamsters as a strike captain for the famous United Farm Workers union. It was the start of what would be a long and successful career on the frontlines of the labor and immigrants’ rights movements. When he says now that “immigrants are the best hope for the labor movement,” he knows of which he speaks. Currently he serves as the international vice president of the Service Employees International Union. These days his battles have expanded to include health care reform and gay marriage, a fight he sees as no different than any other struggle for justice.

September 3rd, 2012 written by Staff Writers

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