By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director
As we observe Labor Day today, Monday, September 7, it’s interesting to think back on the work of NCL’s founders. In 1899 a group of women associated with the Hull House social settlement and led by Hull House member Florence Kelley established the advocacy group, the National Consumers League (NCL). Kelley’s objective as head of NCL was focused on improving the pay and working conditions of those who toiled in sweatshops and factories, and most important, getting children out of the workplace and into schools. Kelley traveled the country lecturing on working conditions in the United States. She also initiated the NCL White Label, and employers whose labor practices met with the NCL’s approval for fairness and safety were granted the right to display it.
NCL’s constitution stipulated that it was “concerned that goods be produced and distributed at reasonable prices and in adequate quantity, but under fair, safe, and healthy working conditions that foster quality products for consumers and a decent standard of living for workers.” By any measure, Kelley’s work advanced the interests of children and workers enormously.
I believe that Florence Kelley would applaud NCL’s being part of a coalition of unions, environmental and religious groups this Labor Day that are renewing a call on the world’s largest retailer and private employer, Wal-Mart, to use its power in the marketplace – as a corporate citizen and employer – for the good of workers and communities. Leading the charge is the United Food and Commercial Workers, which also runs the “WakeUpWal-Mart.com”. UFCW holds a seat on the NCL Board.
As UFCW has observed,
“Nobody wants an economy where workers earn wages that can’t support a family. Nobody wants an economy where people who goto work everyday and work hard have to turn to public assistance for basic needs. We are trying to engage Wal-Mart, not isolate it. With 1.4 million Americans working in its stores, Wal-Mart bears a unique responsibility to its workers and our communities, and we’re asking them to embrace this challenge.”
Though it has a few modern touches, Florence Kelley could have made that statement. The groups in the coalition – which are named below – have issued direct challenges to Wal-Mart in five key areas: worker rights, quality jobs, equal opportunity, corporate responsibility and a healthy environment. As part of this renewed effort, WakeUpWal-Mart.com will be releasing two new television advertisements called “Common Sense Economics Rules” calling on Wal-Mart to offer quality, affordable health care coverage to all its employees. Both ads highlight Wal-Mart’s failure to cover 700,000 of its employees, nearly half of its workforce. They end with the message “Wal-Mart can afford to be a better employer; Now would be a good time to start.”
We join our coalition partners in this campaign with new energy – working for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act in Congress, inspired by the tasks left undone by labor champion Senator Teddy Kennedy, and vowing to improve conditions for workers at Wal-Mart and so many other workplaces in the United States where benefits are scarce or nonexistent, the work dangerous or mind-numbingly tedious, and the pay low. Certainly since Florence Kelley’s time we’ve made progress, but there is so much more to do. Happy Labor Day to all from the National Consumers League.
Coalition members include: AFL-CIO, Change to Win, Sierra Club, Campaign for America’s Future, National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, National Consumers League, AFSCME, American Rights at Work, Communications Workers of America, Interfaith Worker Justice, LIUNA, National Labor Coordinating Committee, Service Employees International Union, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, United Auto Workers, United Farmer Workers and United Steel Workers.