Labor Day. It was initiated toward the end of the 19th century to celebrate the labor union movement that had begun to economically and politically empower hourly wage employees. They held parades. Parades were one thing. Yay for parades. Everybody loves a parade. But strikes and demands for higher pay and better working conditions were another. Pay and working conditions were up to owners, management, and the market, not the lower classes of hourly workers.
Strikes could be struck with violence on both sides, but they could be put down with overwhelming force by management. Somehow unionized workers prevailed, rights and pay were won. The entire nation benefitted. Union leaders became arrogant power brokers. By the post war years the big unions could bring entire industries to heel. They got greedy. Work rules worked to stifle flexibility, agility, innovation, and efficiency. In the meantime, post war recovery in Europe and Asia opened new markets, and created new competition from new technologically advanced industries. Management worked to find more sophisticated ways to win back control and hobble union power: right to work laws, scab labor, mass firings, lock outs. The new global economy opened new labor markets, enticing offshore factories, while automation reduced the need for production line workers at home. Union power faded to a shadow of its former self.
The old time structure of private sector also faded. Investment funds, public employee retirement funds, hedge funds, and a handful of individual investors now compete to control the ebb and flow of the stock market. Top tier managers act as if they were owners, but their pay is tied to how well they meet quarterly analyst expectations, which lures them to mess around with accounting tricks and stock buy backs, having no fear of labor raising objections, labor meaning any employee below the top tier.
So here we are with another Labor Day. The end of summer. One day sales. BBQs. Back to school. It comes with a 40 hour week, weekends, sick leave, vacation leave, Social Security, Workers Compensation, and more that we take for granted, bequeathed to us by the union stalwarts who persevered against all odds and won.
I never much cared for unions myself. Given an opportunity to join one early in my career, I declined. I didn’t want to be told what I could or couldn’t do on the job, nor be held accountable to a shop steward. I had more confidence in my own abilities to compete for advancement. Later on, consulting on a variety of public policy issues, I found it hard to justify our clients’ desires to pass more right to work laws, although well managed companies did well by their employees in right to work states in order to stave off attempts at unionizing. Not all were well managed, and the underlying desire was to convert labor to a commodity no different than any other. Their desires to oppose any increases in minimum wages never did make sense. No data supported their assumptions.
A quarter century has passed since I left that kind of work. A lot has changed. Wage growth has stagnated. Income inequality has reached levels dangerous to a democratic society. Hourly and mid level salaried workers retain their political value only at election time. Global economic and domestic demographic changes have created an environment in which autocratic politicians in league with oligarchs of industry find it easy to manipulate the disaffected to give up even more of their freedom in exchange for promises of good times ahead. In a discouraging mind twisting way, hard core libertarians, suspicious of all government, enthusiastically support the move toward fascist government control of everything.
So here we are with another Labor Day. Perhaps it’s time to remember with thanks what unions did to make our land a better place, and to encourage them to find new ways to organize on behalf of hourly and mid level salaried workers in a stronger democratic nation. Ways that don’t reprise the past, but energize a future. This time with no violence, and without making enemies where none need exist.