03 September 2012


Today is Labor Day in the U.S., a holiday established in 1887 to "celebrate the economic and social contributions of workers".  Like most holidays, Labor Day's intent is cheapened by retailers holding sales to gain yet more profit.  The paradox is that most retail workers, who comprise 24% of all jobs in the U.S., are required not only to work on the holiday, but to put in longer hours.  Capitalism never sleeps.

Too few people understand that the genesis of the holiday lies in the existence of labor unions, which began forming in the mid-19th century in response to the social and economic impact of the Industrial Revolution.  Activism and strikes by labor unions were central to reforms which improved working conditions, improved workers' pay, placed limits on the number of hours spent working each day and each week, instituted overtime pay for exceeding those limits, creating paid sick leave and health benefits, and enacted child labor laws.

Before the advent of labor unions, working conditions were too often medieval.  Business owners and corporations violently resisted the labor reform movement, often hiring armed thugs or calling on government to supply armed troops to interfere with union strikes.  (Two fine films which portray the conflict are John Sayles' Matewan and Danny DeVito's Hoffa.)  The unions' cause was just, and membership proliferated.  The percentage of workers belonging to a union (or "density") in the United States peaked in 1954 at almost 35%, and the total number of union members peaked in 1979 at about 21 million.

Starting with Ronald Reagan's election to the presidency in 1980, ushering in the corrupting power of anti-union Wall Street into government which continues to this day, union membership has declined (currently 14.8 million and 12% of the labor force) ~ see first and second charts below.  Concurrently, wages and benefits have plateaued ~ see third chart below, click on any image to enlarge.

It is a shame that so many people, including liberals, have a jaundiced view of labor unions.  Many believe conservative propaganda which holds that union demands have gone too far, and that union members enjoy more pay and benefits than they deserve.  Tell that to the nation's teachers, police officers, fire fighters, transit drivers, and factory workers.  In an economy in which CEOs make 400 times the salary of their employees, it isn't labor that's responsible for the disaster which is today's economy.

Over the years I've worked at all levels of government ~ city, county, state, and federal ~ as well as private employers and non-profit employers.  In no position did I enjoy pay and benefits out of line with the skills I brought to the job, whether or not I was a union member.  If anything, union and non-union workers remain underpaid, their wages stagnant for the last 30 years of Reagan-Bush-Bush economics while the cost of living continues to climb.  One result ~ the number of Americans living in poverty (including the elderly living on Social Security) has risen to levels not seen since the Great Depression.

So on this Labor Day holiday, thank union members for their contribution and their sacrifice.

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