Labor Day – what we shouldn’t forget

“In regards to the price of commodities, the rise of wages operates as simple interest does, the rise of profit operates like compound interest. Our merchants and masters complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price and lessening the sale of goods. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.”  — Adam Smith

Tomorrow is the first Monday in Spetember, a day officially designated in the United States as Labor Day since 1894, although the day had been celebrated in several states since the mid-1880’s. Similar to the holiday celebrated in much of the rest of the world on May 1, the United State Dpeartment of Labor website defines the day as “a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

With the annual end of the summer school holidays, it, like many other, holidays, has become an excuse for Back to School sales (& yes, I did take my daughter clothes shopping this weekend), end-of-summer parties, and similar activities and events that we enjoy whenever a national holiday gives a us time off from work – and a three-day weekend to boot. Which is all good – we should be able to take advantage of our own breaks from work. But, perhaps, those of us fortunate enough to have steady full-time jobs – blue or white collar – should also pause to think a bit about how we got where we are – with five day work weeks, paid vacation and sick time, corporate health plans, safety requirements, etc. We are here now, able to enjoy a day dedicated to the contributions because of the contributions of labor. And of the collective bargaining power formed when labor organized into unions. Yes, some unions were corrupted, some unions abused their bargaining power, and may have contributed to the downfall of their employers.

But those really were the exceptions, not the rule, most unions did, and still do, want what is best for their members – and somethings that includes giving things up to keep jobs. Yet, throughout organized labor’s history, there has been much vilification of unions – Businesses, like manufacturing and construction, which rely heavily on union labor, will argue that they can’t afford to employ union workers, or that they can only afford them with drastic cuts to what the workers need to live and support their families. Corporations have cheerfully blamed unions, all or in part, for their own failures (see Hostess and they US auto industry for example) – because then the public buys into the notion that unions are inherently bad. And then they, in turn, support free-market politicians (who generally have a vested interest in keeping their business sponsors happy) will push through “right to work” laws, and will actually move, as Tennessee did with Volkwagen, to stop an auto manufaturer from opening a plant unless they agreed to keep the unions at bay.

“Right to Work”, now a law in 26 states, is a particularly disturbing form of union busting because it sounds, on the surface, so sensible. Very simply, under right to work laws, no one can be compelled to join a union or to pay union dues. In many cases, unions had, in fact, reached agreements with companies that required the collection of union dues, even from non-union workers, for the expenses involved in union negotiations. This was done because, under federal law, unions must provide protections to all employees covered under a contract even when those employees are not union members. The right to work laws effectively reduce the ability of the unions to gain in negotiations over time, and several recent studies have confirmed that workers in right to work states tend to have lower wages and fewer benefits than similar workers in neighboring non-right to work states.

More and more manufacturing has moved to other, less expensive, less well regulated, countries; and the service sector has also seen more ‘help desk’ type of jobs move in a similar fashion. Under the umbrella of building a global workforce, many other jobs – such as technology and financial services – are also seeing their US workforce shrink, as the foreign workforce continues to grow. Corporate greed, not the intransigence of unions, is the reason. The need to deliver increasing amount of profits to shareholders, has put profit over people. It is another sign of capitalism run amok.

We should all remember, as we enjoy our holiday, that the memes are right – we should thank a union. Even those of us that have never worked a union job have benefitted from what they accomplished for all workers.

 

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