Federal Holiday Shines Light on Labor’s Pain

Posted on September 6, 2013. Filed under: Uncategorized |

By Carl Chancellor

Parades, cookouts, speeches, rallies, and even a bridge walk in Michigan are just some of the events held nationwide on Monday, Sept. 2, to celebrate the untold contributions of America’s workers and its unions throughout our nation’s history. But more than 130 years since the first Labor Day parade was held in New York City, organized labor in our country is seeing its numbers shrink—down to just 11.3 percent of the American workforce in 2012. To put it simply: the state of union isn’t good.

What’s more, state-level policies in places such as Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan threaten to further weaken unions. In 2012, both Indiana and Michigan passed “right-to-work” laws that undermine unions, while other states, including Wisconsin, have repealed collective bargaining rights for most public-sector workers.

At the height of union membership in this country in the early to mid-1950s, more than one-third—35.9 percent—of American workers were represented by organized labor. In 2012, the private-sector unionization was just 6.6 percent.

While unions are certainly down, they are not necessarily out. In the last week of August low-wage workers across the country—mainly fast-food workers—engaged in a series of national protests demanding a living-wage of $15 per hour and the right to unionize.

Still there is no denying that organized labor is just “a whisper of its former greatness,” according to Phillip Dray, author of There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America.  Dray says that the demise of unions can by attributed to Americans’ short memories, which has resulted in a less than favorable perception of unions. However, it is important to remember that most of what we take for granted in the workplace from the eight-hour work day to child-labor laws to fire escapes in factories were the result of hard earned union victories.

Of course unions have often been their own worse enemies with at times absurd, strict adherence to outdated and arcane work rules not to mention a history replete with racial and sexual discrimination.

Speaking of history and memory: let’s not forget that 60 years ago when union membership was at its zenith the U.S. economy was booming—from 1947 through 1973, before unions went into serious decline, the U.S. economy nearly tripled from $1.7 trillion to $4.9 trillion.  Americans with good union benefits and wages were able to purchase homes, buy cars, appliances, and other big-ticket items, and save for college—in short, were able to move into the middle class— which in turn drove a strong economy.

As Congress returns to work facing still unacceptable levels of unemployment, lawmakers would do well to remember that policies that build a strong middle class build a strong economy.

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