Labor Day was once a day for union members to celebrate with pride the value of blue collar workers as the backbone of America’s economy, and worthy of their pay. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they did it with parades and sponsored picnics at a time when unionized labor was just gaining traction. I don’t know when the first Monday in September became the unofficial last day of summer dedicated to backyard BBQs or one last long weekend in the RV, but that’s what it now is. Labor Day in recognition of the labor movement has been replaced by brats and beers.
If nothing else, the 2016 election raised the problems and importance of the working class to renewed visibility. It may have even opened the door to renewed appreciation for the role of unions in a democratic republic like ours. At their peak in 1954, labor unions accounted for about 35% of the labor market. It’s been a down hill slide from then to today when about 11% of the work force is unionized. The power of old time industrial unions is all but gone, and newer unions in service industries struggle to gain footholds.
I never much cared for labor unions, although I once belonged to an association that acted much like one. I figured I could make my way in the world on my own better than being shackled by union work rules and their antipathy toward management. I had watched union greed strike for wages, benefits, and work rules that would help break companies, and eventually help break the unions themselves. I saw the open hostility between labor and management that led to intransigence on both sides, and the bullheadedness of each to resist change that would improve the economic well being of both. I even aided clients who wanted right to work laws in their states. No union fan I.
But I did wonder. Earlier in my career there was a big push to stop an increase in the federal minimum wage. White papers were sent out claiming it would eliminate jobs, and cause a recession. Neither data nor experience supported their claims. It was really about holding union wages in check. At the time, some union contracts had automatic wage increases tied to minimum wage increases, and management didn’t want that to happen. To combat union power, Right to Work laws were sold as union neutral, but they never were. They all but guaranteed a union free environment in right to work states. I blamed big unions for blowing it with their bellicosity, but it was also clear that without union representation, management would take every opportunity to hold wage labor costs down with little regard for the effects it would have on the fabric of society.
About the same time, many of us were selling and teaching what some called the Japanese way of management. It was really the product of W. Edwards Deming, and others, who brought the best in American practices to help rebuild the Japanese economy after the war. It was based on team work, empowerment at the lowest levels of labor, and simple tools of statistical feedback every worker could learn to use. Many CEOs bought into it. Few practiced it. It just became another flavor of the month among management fads, in spite of its proven track record. But it was a handy tool to sell the idea that unions were outdated and unnecessary.
And here you have it; my version of bellicose big unions and 19th century management mindsets blundering with fisticuffs into the latter half of the 20th century. What kept it from being a true disaster was the size of the American economy, and it’s unquestioned place as the super power of all super powers.
The elections of 2010, 2012 and 2016 may have been what was needed to begin the restoration of labor union strength. We shall see. Right wing libertarians made enormous congressional gains in 2010-12 by running as the voice of the common ‘man’ who had enough of big government, taxes and regulations. For them, the idea of good faith negotiation was anathema. The could not be budged. They were egged on by authoritarian minded corporate interests, exemplified by the Kochs, for whom a society as close as they could get it to genuine laissez faire would be ideal. Then along came humbug Trump, who was talented at pretending to be a common ‘man’ loving libertarian, and gifted at preying on the economic and social fears of vulnerable whites, especially the so called working class. He promised the moon and stars if they voted for him, and they believed it.
I think for all those common ‘men’ it’s beginning to sink in that rank and file workers need unions to represent their collective interests in a private enterprise based economy where, given the chance, owners and managers will treat them as expendable commodities. If a renewed union movement can refrain from pugilistic antagonism, they may find management more amenable than they thought. They’re still up against virulent anti-union Koch type interests who will fight tooth and nail to keep unions out. They’re still up against long established conservative bias against unions as usurpers of management rights, and closet socialists to boot. But there is also a deep conviction among Americans of every class in the value of fairness and equity. A stronger labor union movement would undoubtedly help create a stronger, more equitable economic society for all.