Working America's 5 Best and 5 Worst Moments of 2010

2010 was a year of highs and lows for working families.

It’s been quite a year for America’s working families. And as we gear up for the fights ahead, it’s important to reflect on 2010—both the highs and the lows.

The Best

1. Rail and Airline Union Elections Lead to a Win for Democracy

Imagine a presidential election in which all non-voters were tallied as a vote for the incumbent. That’s how union representation elections used to be for workers in the rail and airline industries, where non-voters were counted as a vote against the union. But last May, the National Mediation Board (NMB) adopted a new rule that ensures a more democratic process for these workers by only counting votes from voting employees.

2. Students and Workers Earn Sweat-free Victory

Ten years ago, workers at BJ&B factory in the Dominican Republic kicked off their effort to form a union for better pay and a voice in their workplace. Despite a strong partnership with student labor group United Students Against Sweatshops, big-name brands stopped sourcing from the factory once the workers had a contract, and it closed in 2007. But this summer, Knights Apparel reopened the factory and rehired the unionized workers. In college bookstores across the country, consumers can now buy apparel produced at the plant under the brand name Alta Gracia. 

3. Stephen Colbert Learns About Life in the Fields

In July, Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert took the United Farm Workers up on its “Take Our Jobs” challenge, which offered citizens the opportunity to take a migrant farm worker’s job. Colbert televised his day in the fields, and even testified before Congress. He did it all with levity, but the unprecedented attention he brought to the challenges migrant farm workers face everyday deserves serious recognition.

4. Florida Tomato Workers No Longer Kept Silent

In October, Pacific Tomato Growers and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers signed a ground-breaking agreement to create new labor standards in Florida’s tomato industry—an industry characterized by lack of fair pay, health benefits, and safety training. The agreement implements worker involvement in health and safety programs, education programs, and a fair system for resolving disputes with employers. It’s just one step in creating a safe working environment for tomato workers, but it’s an important one.

5. New York State Passes Wage Theft Law

Workers are having a hard enough time as it is. But according to the National Employment Law Project, employers routinely deny workers the pay they’re rightfully due. In New York City alone, workers (and the economy) lose out on nearly $1 billion in pay each year. But thanks to the efforts of worker organizations, in December New York Governor David Paterson signed the Wage Theft Prevention Act to make sure workers are fairly compensated.

The Worst

1. Workplace Disasters Take Center Stage

Deepwater Horizon – 11 workers dead. Upper Big Branch mine – 29 miners dead. Both tragedies might have been prevented if these workers had a voice on the job and whistleblower protections to raise attention to safety hazards. But despite intense media coverage and public outrage, Congress didn’t pass a critical reform bill, the Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act. Unsurprisingly, the mining and oil drilling industries haven’t stepped up to the plate either.

2. Citizens United Ruling Opens Floodgates of Corporate Cash

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations could freely spend on elections through most any means available. The decision rested on the specious logic that corporations enjoy the same First Amendment protections as everyday people. The result? Middle class Americans robbed of their voice at the ballot box by far-right front groups who spent upwards of $190 million dollars to support an anti-worker agenda.

3. Whirlpool Sends Indiana Jobs to Mexico

Last year, Whirlpool announced that it would be closing its Evansville, IN, plant and sending 1,100 jobs to Mexico. Despite sky-high profits and public outcry, the company shuttered the factory in February, leaving us with one less way to ‘Buy American.’ Congress made an attempt at limiting incentives for outsourcing in September with The Creating American Jobs and Ending Offshoring Act, but the bill died when Senate Republicans again stood stubbornly in the way of progress for working families.

4. Anti-Worker Politicians Win Big in Midterm Elections

The 2010 midterms mean a major shift in the political landscape, with a panoply of anti-worker candidates set to take office in January. And in four states, ‘secret’ ballot initiativesare now on the books. Disingenuously framed as worker protection, these initiatives are intended to maintain a status quo that time and again fails to protect workers’ rights to form a union and bargain for a fair shake.

5. Unemployment Benefits Lapse… Again

Thanks to GOP obstructionism, unemployment benefits lapsed for jobless workers in July. And for hundreds of thousands of out-of-work Americans, they lapsed again in December. All this despite a staggering 9.8 percent unemployment rate. The price working families (and the deficit) had to pay to get jobless benefits extended? The extension of Bush-era tax cutsfor the wealthy.

There’s no question we’ve got a lot of work to do to make 2011 a better year for working families, and the lessons of 2010 are a good way to start. What do you think were the best and worst moments for workers this year?

Kimberly Freeman Brown is executive director of American Rights at Work, a labor policy and advocacy organization.
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