LABOR DAY -- YOU REMEMBER 'LABOR,' DON'T YOU? By Richard Reeves August 28, 2014 4:30 PM
WASHINGTON –“I woke up last Thursday morning to learn that my FedEx man does not work for FedEx. Voices on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" informed me that although FedEx controls just about every minute of its drivers' days, the corporation regards them as "independent contractors." Thus, no benefits -- they even have to pay for their own uniforms -- and the workers can be kicked out anytime FedEx feels like it.
Management (has) begun to understand how to squeeze workers and their unions. By 2013, fewer than 10 per cent of private sector employees belonged to unions, compared with 20 percent in 1983 and more than 50 percent in the 1950s. Result: Wages have stagnated, spouses have gone to work, and strikes have been broken. Now more than half the unionized workers in the country are public service employees, who have better and more complicated work rule regimes than corporate employees.
So, I would argue, Labor Day is a farce. Even public employees -- read Wisconsin! -- are losing what security America offers. At the minimum, the first Monday in September should be called "Reagan Day," or the date should be changed to Aug. 3 and the holiday called "PATCO Day." That was the day in 1981 that President Reagan stated that if members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization -- the only union that endorsed him in the 1980 presidential election -- did not return to work, they would be fired. They did not return and they were fired. Corporate America got the message, and private-sector unions were marked for death.
Now, is (that) what we celebrate on Labor Day: the rise of management and the death of organized labor (?)”
This is, indeed, a strange time to be celebrating Labor Day, when Labor in general seems to be losing ground in many ways:
= wages are, and have been, stagnant
= wages are themselves an issue in determining where companies with large labor forces will locate; management wants to keep wages as low as they possibly can
= a raise in the minimum wage can’t even get to a vote in the Congress
= neither can an extension of unemployment compensation or a Jobs bill
= women can’t get equal pay for equal work
= unemployment up slightly in July because of more long-term unemployed and new workers entering or re-entering job market (job-searching again)
= average number of hours Americans are working each week unimproved; remained steady at 34.2 in August;
= use of part-time and temp workers may be a strategy used by corporations to keep personnel expenses down
= Right-to-work states are now at all-time high of 22
=unrestricted right to fire someone, even without cause, is on the rise
From a very general point of view, this Labor Day is not a celebratory day. Moreover, looking at Labor more narrowly – in terms of the Labor Movement or Labor Unions – one would have to admit that the outlook is not that great there either. Take a look at some of the reasons:
= the number of Union Members in the United States is 14.5 million out of a Civilian workforce of about 155 million
= the percentage of Workers Who Belong to Unions in the U.S. is at 11.3% compared to 20.1% and 17.7 million union workers in 1983 when such stats were first available
= the highest percentage of union members are in the government sector – 35.3% -- 5 times higher than in the private sector – 6.7%
= high unemployment among African-Americans, teenagers and those with less than a high school diploma goes largely unaddressed or minimally addressed by all sectors, including Labor Unions; their percentages of union membership aren’t very impressive: Blacks – 13.6%; Women – 10.5%
= unions are being legislatively attacked by Right-wing State administrations and legislatures – 22 are now Right-to-Work states; more have laws restricting collective bargaining; benefits are restricted or gone altogether: pension plans, medical insurance, bonuses, etc.
=rights to collective bargaining are under attack from corporations and some state governors and legislatures
=the political clout of unions has declined over the last decade; although many unions are still quite active in supporting issues and candidates, they can no longer afford high-powered lobbyists and lawyers to help fight their battles
= out of about $9 billion total income, total lobbying by unions was about $46.9 million in 2013 down from $50.6 million in 2011; the total is projected to be down again by the end of 2014
= even strike actions are on the decline; strikes, heavy dues and internal politics are not considered advantages even by many union members, let-alone outside parties
According to PEOPLE magazine, ”Labor Day is a day set aside to pay tribute to working men and women. It has been celebrated as a national holiday in the United States and Canada since 1894. Labor unions themselves celebrated the first labor days in the United States, although there's some speculation as to exactly who came up with the idea. The first Labor Day parade occurred Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City. The workers' unions chose the first Monday in September because it was halfway between Independence Day and Thanksgiving. The idea spread across the country, and some states designated Labor Day as a holiday before the federal holiday was created. President Grover Cleveland signed a law designating the first Monday in September as Labor Day nationwide (even though) Cleveland was not a labor union supporter. In fact, he was trying to repair some political damage that he suffered earlier that year when he sent federal troops to put down a strike by the American Railway Union at the Pullman Co. in Chicago, IL…that resulted in the deaths of 34 workers.
Membership in labor unions in the United States reached an all-time high in the 1950s when about 40 percent of the work force belonged to unions. Today, union membership is about 12 per cent of the working population. Labor Day now carries less significance as a celebration of working people and more as the end of summer.” As realistic and legitimate as these statistics and opinions appear to be, there is more to unionization than this viewpoint encompasses.
Wikipedia reminds us: “Although much smaller compared to their peak membership in the 1950s, American unions remain a political factor, both through mobilization of their own memberships and through coalitions with like-minded activist organizations around issues such as immigrant rights, trade policy, health care, and living wage campaigns. Of special concern are efforts by cities and states to reduce the pension obligations owed to unionized workers who retire in the future. Republicans elected with Tea Party support in 2010 have launched major efforts against public sector unions due in part to state government pension obligations along with the allegation that the unions are too powerful.”
Even more important, perhaps, is the situation that is growing within the private sector. Not only has union membership in that sector shrunk inexorably, but non-union employees are finding, much to their dismay, that they are vulnerable to layoffs, jobs & factories or services being moved elsewhere, dismissal without cause, or cut backs in hours and benefits. And, there is no one available to help out those who are victims of these circumstances, unless one pays an expensive lawyer. That is the essence of unionism: protection of the rights of employees and of the just compensation of every employee.
Consider, for the moment, this list of important benefits that union members find invaluable:
= representatives in the workplace of our own choosing,
= an active, collective voice to bargain over working conditions, and due process on the job
= collective bargaining is the best way to promote basic, democratic principles of fairness and dignity at work; being in a union confers significant economic benefits as well
= Unions have historically been the most effective institutions in our society at making sure the economic gains that workers help to create are shared widely rather than being channeled solely to the executive suite.
Is there a case to be made for such claims about union membership? Well, the many attacks on unions and their rights would be the first clue to union effectiveness. But here are some figures that tend to make it clear that union membership has actually made a difference in workers' lives (taken from these sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Union Members - 2013, and AFL-CIO "The Union Difference" Updated 3/12/2014 by IAM&AW Strategic Resources Department)
Some of the most important benefits that workers get from Union membership are impossible to assign a price tag value. The data below illustrates “The Union Difference” and shows why people continue joining unions today. Union Difference - Annually 2013
Status Median Wkly. Earngs Any Retiremt Benefits: Pension Medical
Union $950 89% 79% 85%
Non-Union $750 48% 17% 54%
In addition, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that union members' salaries exceed the salaries of their non-union counterparts by as much as 68% in certain job classifications. Unionized service employees realized the greatest salary difference--68% higher than non-union workers in the same profession.
Ehow.com provides us with a brief but comprehensive summary of union services and benefits:
- One of the services that a union provides its members is representation. Before unions, an employer could force workers to work overtime without pay and without breaks. The union is responsible for changes in the way workers are treated by employers. One of the ways it accomplishes this is through collective bargaining. The union will assign a representative to sit down with the employer and reach an agreement on fair and equitable treatment for union members. The collective bargaining session can be for wages, benefits, hours and conditions of employment. Once agreements are reached, there is usually a time period of one to three years, at which time the agreement is reviewed and amended if necessary.
- Union members who feel they have been treated unfairly on the job have the option of having disputes with their employers settled through arbitration. The results of arbitration are binding upon both parties (the employee and employer). It is similar to a court hearing in which both parties are able to present their reasons for the disagreement before an impartial third party (the arbitrator), who... renders a decision for resolution.
- A grievance is filed when the terms of a collective bargaining agreement have been misapplied. Grievance procedures are similar to arbitration since an arbitrator reviews the facts and makes the determination as to whether or not the collective bargaining terms and conditions were properly applied.
- The union provides its members with benefits that can last a lifetime. Members of the AFL-CIO, along with their family members and retirees, are automatically eligible for some union-sponsored benefits. These benefits are available to union members because the union represents millions of buyers. Some of the benefits that union members and their families are able to take advantage of include: Auto---car purchase service; tire purchase discounts and discounts on car rentals. Educational Resources---Union Plus scholarships; National Labor College Scholarships; Union Leaders of the Future Scholarships and student discounts. Member assistant programs---Financial hardship assistance; mortgage assistant and worker debt help.
"Labor Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year in any country. All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man's prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day...is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation."
The history of the Labor Movement in this country is a story of attention to the rights and protection of workers who must give their labor for the good and the success of a company or enterprise. We do not, by that statement, mean to lessen the untoward problems and unsatisfactory moments of history that have involved Labor Unions. However, let us balance that rough and corrupt history with the white collar crime and the unseemly acts of corporations and their executives and directors toward exploitation, unsafe products, child labor, and violations of decent ethical standards toward employees and consumers. There is enough unethical, illegal and fraudulent behavior to place on both sides of the Business-Labor equation.
What matters, I think, on Labor Day especially, is that we recognize and honor the good intentions and actions of working men and women in their labor of love for the dignity of working conditions and treatment, as well as for fair and equitable pay and benefits. The fight for those rights and privileges is not over. The battle of survival against a tide of Right-wing venom and dirty-tricks is all too prevalent. Child labor, poverty-level wages, destruction of pensions and benefits such as collective bargaining, plus the on-going threat to adequate health benefits-- all these are not going away by themselves.
Moreover, lack of attention to raising the minimum wage and providing adequate unemployment compensation, along with equal pay for women, plus the actions by increasing numbers of corporations to avoid paying, not only adequate wages, but their fair share of taxes and indeed, paying any at all -- all of this unapologetic greed on the part of corporations and their officers is reason enough to hope that the Labor Movement regains its strength and its mission. Without the protective interventions of unions, we are left with a chaos that will not be to anyone's benefit, including those industrialists who wish to destroy all unions!
To all of those (too many of whom I know personally) who have recently lost jobs for no good cause or reason but the whim of a CEO or manager, I send my heart-felt condolences and best wishes. You are not defeated! Use your new beginnings to become an activist and a reformer. Labor, and other progressive groups, need you on the front lines!
I leave with all of you today the words of a much wiser writer (and community organizer of some renown) with the hope that his message will penetrate the lives and actions of all who think that political in-action is of some value, and not a sign of surrender.
"We are desperately concerned with the vast mass of our people who, thwarted through lack of interest or opportunity, or both, do not participate in the endless responsibilities of citizenship and are resigned to lives determined by others. To 'lose' your 'identity' as a citizen of democracy is but a step from losing your identity as a person.
"The separation of the people from the routine daily functions of citizenship is heartbreak in a democracy. It is a grave situation when people resign their citizenship... sink further into apathy, anonymity and depersonalization...(and) come to depend on (some other) authority. From time to time, there have been external enemies at our gates; (but) there has always been the enemy within, the hidden and malignant inertia that foreshadows more certain destruction to our life and future than any nuclear warhead . There can be no more devastating tragedy than the death of man's faith in himself and in his power to direct his future.
"Over one hundred and fifty-five years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville gravely warned that unless individual citizens were regularly involved in the action of governing themselves, self-government would pass from the scene. Citizen participation is the animating spirit and force in a society predicated on voluntarism" because it breathes life into our democratic process, and into all of our institutions.
Labor Day is not just for remembrance of rights won and lost, it is a Day for rejuvenation and re-dedication to making operational the ideals of equality, justice, peace, cooperation, equal and full opportunities for education, full and useful employment, good health, and the creation of those circumstances under which all can have the chance to prosper and be successful in the virtues and values that give meaning to life.