Labor Day comes this weekend. It marks the end of the summer season
Somewhat lost in the final vacation days is the fact that is supposed to recognize the contribution of the American worker to the country’s economic success.
Our system requires capital to be invested in the economy, but it also depends on the efforts of a large and effective work force. Simply describing the system as capitalism, correct as far as it goes, leaves labor out. So we have Labor Day.
As the celebration of the American labor movement fades, labor unions themselves seem to be losing ground.
Labor Day began a century and a half ago. It was set in September to keep it away from May 1, an international labor day dominated by socialists and communists. Oddly enough, May 1 had an American origin, the Haymarket Affair, a bloody labor conflict in Chicago around the demand for an eight-hour workday.
The organized labor movement grew and its influence expanded through World War II. Federal legislation gave workers the tools to organize. After the war, a reaction set in and some of those tools were limited by new federal laws.
The presence of union members in the private sector work force began declining six decades ago. Not only did restrictive laws affect it, but labor gains would come more through the legislative process than through collective bargaining. Working conditions were set by law.
The Maine referendum to set the minimum wage illustrates how labor matters have come to be decided through the political process.
Some widely publicized scandals also harmed organized labor. Jimmy Hoffa, the chief of the Teamsters, became a nationally known figure for his criminal associations and served time in prison.
Unions also faced “right to work” laws. Employers managed to get half the states to prevent workers from being required to join a union or pay dues even as they enjoyed the benefits of collective bargaining. The obvious intent was to weaken organized labor.
Another factor after World War II was increased globalization. Trade and production were less defined by national borders as production lines and markets became international. That meant American workers would face competition from countries with far lower standards and costs as well as less environmental protection.
Some private sector unions learned how to adjust in providing their members access to good pay and job security. But it became increasingly difficult and membership declined.
At the same time, public sector labor organizations grew. While not able to strike, they bargained effectively for wages and job security. Then, they began to face similar legislative obstacles to those in the private sector. Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that non-members did not have to pay collective bargaining costs.
President Trump wants to make it easier to fire federal employees and to cut the amount of time that can be devoted to union activities. Last week, a federal court overturned his executive orders.
Attempts to weaken unions can be expected to continue in both federal and state governments.
The underlying reason may not be simply to reduce labor costs and boost profits. If unions are reduced in strength, they may not be able to play a strong role in politics. The massive political spending by corporations and billionaires is justified by the claim they must match huge union spending.
In fact, unions contribute far less to political campaigns than their opponents. Union members also increasingly have personal and political interests that are unrelated to union goals, and unions cannot deliver their votes.
The trends that have developed since Labor Day was created suggest that organized labor will win fewer battles at the bargaining table. Just as corporations and their owners have resorted to legislative action, the unions are increasingly forced to do the same.
In the face of the well-financed opposition to their hard-won wages and working conditions, unions may have to step up their political operations even more. Obviously, they must meet money with money, which may require more cooperation in political action among unions. They need to get out the vote.
Unions will need to seek alliances with others with complementary interests. That may mean compromise and taking a hard look at the effects of globalization and how to deal with it rather than believing it can be beaten back. Of course, trade agreements must really be fair. But they cannot be wiped out.
If Labor Day is not to fade away entirely, left only as an occasion for nostalgia, labor must continue facing up to new political realities.