Columns 2015

Celebrating Labor Day as laborers struggle to survive

Now that our historic presidential visit is just about over, we can focus on the important things in life. Important things like will it be warm enough to grill outside on Labor Day? And let’s be honest here. Alaskans have been known to grill in below zero weather so absent torrential rains, I’m guessing most of us will celebrate the day with something charred on a grill.

According to a government website, “Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is 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.”

It has been around since 1894 when laborers were still fighting to be treated decently and have their work respected. Everything in history was against their effort to organize but that didn’t stop them. Across Europe and America, workers who demanded to be treated fairly and with dignity formed unions because they knew that strength in numbers was their best ally. Ultimately, unions secured safe workplaces, decent wages and humane working hours, often in the face of bloody opposition from both politicians and their backers. Not unlike today, those political backers were the rich and powerful.

As we approach this Labor Day, what might strike you is how much the relationship between unions, owners and government has seemed to change since then. Except that if you really look closely, nothing has changed. Powerful people with billions of dollars still control most politicians. And more and more politicians are again doing everything they can to strip unions of their power to represent their membership in a meaningful way. The difference is that the unions now are on the defensive, while the rich and powerful continue to enjoy obscene rewards from the working person’s labor.

Unions are not blameless in this scenario.  Some have taken as much advantage of their members as anyone else. Some became corrupt and bloated, with senior union staff rivaling the rich and powerful in their wealth and access to the corridors of influence in DC. Now it seems we want to throw the baby out with the bathwater to correct the situation and that’s never a good idea.

More and more employers are using part time workers and contract workers to avoid paying benefits like health care, sick leave or retirement. This puts more money in their pockets and less money in the pockets of the workers. For those of you who wonder where America’s middle class went, look no further. Our middle class grew strong on the backs of unions that demanded fair and equitable treatment for all workers. Now we live in a world where executives make 500 times what the most skilled worker makes, while leaving that worker with a barely living wage. That’s simply wrong.

I have a dear friend in New Jersey who taught elementary school for over forty years.  I watched her spend her own money to buy supplies. I watched her gather up materials and drive to a hospital in another city to make sure a student battling cancer had his schoolwork and could keep up. I watched her use her own time to fix up her classroom so that it was always a warm and welcoming place for the kids in her care. I watched her pay to expand her education so that she’d be better at what she did. Mostly though, I watched in awe at her dedication to what is clearly a vocation and not just a job. So when Governor Chris Christie basically declared teachers and their union the “enemy”, you can understand her bewilderment.

We spend a lot of time in this country pontificating about how important our kids’ education is to their future. Then we turn around and penalize the people who work every day to make that education happen. We watch as executives buy a second home and third yacht while the line worker can’t afford to pay for his kid’s dental work. Unions remain one of the last bulwarks against the total destruction of the middle class.

On Labor Day, let’s truly celebrate the laborer and never forget what it was like before unions fought for decent wages and benefits. It’s not a time we should be trying to return to.