Built by labor
Today is Labor Day, an American holiday that years ago somehow felt far more relevant than it does now, mostly because it originally was widely recognized as a day set aside to salute the members of our nation’s labor unions.
Now, given the clearly declining status of unions in the American way of life, and the widening gap between the rich and the rest of us, today is just another holiday, a day without some services that we may sometimes take for granted.
Labor Day was launched in 1882 as the American equivalent of the May Day celebrations in other industrialized nations, and the first Monday in September was chosen as the day for the holiday for the simple reason that it would be roughly halfway between July 4 and Thanksgiving.
But for a variety of reasons — even, in some cases, widely resented abuse of their power — unions no longer enjoy the kind of popular support they had in the past.
In the 1950s, 35 percent of American workers belonged to unions; today, that number has dipped drastically to 11.3 percent and there are ongoing efforts, as we’ve seen in Wisconsin recently, to further diminish their importance.
This past summer the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the controversial state legislation that had been pushed by Gov. Scott Walker that effectively limits collective bargaining rights for workers in the public sector.
Restricting collective bargaining rights means that unions can no longer negotiate much more than wages and therefore it is not unreasonable to believe that many workers may be less motivated to join them.
Also, there is active political support for what are referred to as “right to work” laws designed to make union membership strictly voluntary. Where such laws already exist, pay scales tend to be lower.
The very existence of labor unions has always been an area of controversy. Critics, in some cases with ample justification, have often accused the union leaders of negotiating rules that serve to protect their members from the consequences of reasonable management decisions.
These rules, the critics argue, impede the job creators — the corporations, for example — from adopting workplace efficiencies. But the rules wouldn’t exist if at some point the employers hadn’t agreed to them, however grudgingly (at times to avoid or settle strikes).
But not all the critics of labor are from the manufacturing sector. Many Americans genuinely believe that too many incompetent teachers manage to keep their jobs only because they are protected by union-supported tenure rules.
These criticisms of unions are well known and are popular with many Americans. Yet the importance of Labor Day should not be diminished by the fact there are or have been legitimate disagreements over some of their practices.
Think about it: Almost every day almost every American travels to and from their destinations on roads and bridges built and maintained by labor, in vehicles — cars, trucks, buses — assembled by labor. They work in buildings, including schools and hospitals, built by labor.
And in Washington there’s a debate about whether the government ought to allocate the money necessary to rebuild what we’ve been told is the crumbling national infrastructure. If it is to be rebuilt, it will take lots of labor.
Opponents object to the use of federal dollars to solve the problem because they are determined to reduce government spending and they fear that fixing the infrastructure will require higher taxes.
It will also require labor. While making our country safer, it would also create jobs — jobs filled for the most part by what might be called “the laboring class.”
Regardless of how we feel about unions, we need labor. Today’s a good day to remember that.