I cast my first presidential ballot in 1968.
Hubert Humphrey got my vote. He didn’t win, but the late Democratic Minnesota senator and vice president is one of my all-time favorite politicians.
I often think of HHH, especially around Labor Day. He was one of the best friends unions ever had in Washington.
I treasure my paperback copy of The Cause is Mankind: A Liberal Program for Modern America. Printed in 1965, it’s pages are dog eared and yellowed a bit. But the passage of half a century has not dimmed its shining words:
“Union organizations have provided for millions of formerly inarticulate citizens the forum in which to hammer out policies affecting the world in which they live and which their children will inherit. And not only have they hammered out policies, but they have developed techniques and resources for implementing those policies.
“This is what I find so right about the labor movement. Unions have made democracy and citizenship and the right to petition a reality to millions of men and women.”
Today, some Democrats keep unions at arm’s length. Or they come, cap-in-hand, seeking our endorsements and our votes and then vote against us after they get elected.
Few lawmakers have ever had a better labor voting record than HHH.
He was proud to call himself a liberal, though today many Democrats jam the throttle to warp speed fleeing the liberal label. That’s notably true in Red State Kentucky.
But if you pack a union card like this lifelong Kentuckian does, you ought to thank your lucky stars for liberals like Hubert Humphrey. If it were up to conservatives, we wouldn’t have unions.
Conservatives are the folks who brought us scabs, labor spies, yellow dog contracts, strikebreaking injunctions, and “right to work” laws. They hired gunmen and sicced the National Guard and even federal troops on unions to break strikes.
They’ve slammed us as communists, un-America and even un-Christian.
“Unions are one of the organizations leading the world to wickedness,” said Tim Lahaye, who helped found the Moral Majority. “Christians have a responsibility to submit to the authority of their employers since they are designated as part of God’s plan for the exercise of authority on the earth by man,” the Christian Coalition declared.
When conservatives of the sacred and secular worlds laud “free enterprise,” they mean free of unions. Every Republican candidate for president is pro-RTW. So is Matt Bevin, the GOP gubernatorial hopeful in Kentucky.
Anyway, conservatives often claim unions just care about union members. HHH was ever ready to set the record straight.
For example, in his book, he pointed out that unions favor boosting the minimum wage though “very few union members need a Federal minimum wage to protect them.”
Too, unions were—and still are–among the staunchest supporters of Social Security. At 65, I’m old enough to remember when unions championed Medicare, which I’m grateful to be on. (I’m thankful for my Social Security, too.)
I also recall that many union members–especially in the UAW—joined the civil rights movement.
“Most people know legendary UAW President Walter Reuther marched alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he sought to make America a more just nation,” says the union’s website.
Perhaps not as well-known is the fact that, according to the website, the union “gave Dr. King office space at its headquarters at Solidarity House in Detroit where the Nobel Prize winner penned his 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech that remains firmly etched into our collective social consciousness a half century later.
‘“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”
In addition, the website points out that, accompanied “by Reuther and others, King spoke these words at Detroit’s Walk to Freedom, two months before he gave his famous speech on Washington’s Mall.”
The UAW has a Human and Civil Rights Department that the website say “enhances the union’s efforts to ensure that all workers are treated fairly and that all have the same opportunity for advancement.
“As a union, we marched with King because it was the right thing to do. We marched with Cesar Chavez and the farm workers because it was the right thing to do. We supported anti-apartheid marchers and Nelson Mandela in South Africa because it was the right thing to do. We support pay equity measures like the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act because it’s the right thing to do.
“The connection between the labor and civil rights movements is natural. King was supporting sanitation workers in Memphis when he was assassinated. He also understood that when pro-business groups talk about the “Right to Work,” what they really mean is the “Right to Work for Less.”
“‘In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, as ‘right-to-work.’ It provides no ‘rights’ and no ‘works.’ Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining… We demand this fraud be stopped,’ King said in 1961.
“Today, we support a variety of groups and causes that advance the ideals of equality and opportunity for all Americans. It’s because workers can never be free to fulfill their own destinies unless all workers have an equal chance.”
Other unions support the same groups and causes for the same reason the UAW does.
In his book, Humphrey quoted William Schnitzler, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer from 1955 to 1969: “I find it rather amusing—but also distressing—that labor is sometimes attacked, on the one hand, for being a selfish vested interest, and then, on the other hand—by the very same critics—for injecting itself into issues that are not related only to trade unions and their members, and presuming to speak for underprivileged, unorganized workers.
“American labor does presume to speak for more than its own membership. It does this partially as a matter of simple enlightened self-interest. We believe that what is good for America is good for American labor. In one area after another, it is clear that our own members will improve their lot in life only as all the people in the community improve theirs.”
History, the subject I taught in a community college for two dozen years, teaches that unions and liberal government activism have done more to uplift American workers than anything else. Hubert Humphrey was proud to stand foursquare for both.
“The story of the labor movement needs to be taught in every school in this land,”
Humphrey told the 1977 Minnesota AFL-CIO convention. (HHH was also a political science professor).
He added, “America is a living testimonial to what free men and women, organized in free democratic trade unions, can do to make a better life. We ought to be proud of it.”
Indeed we should be, and are. Happy Labor Day.