The decline of unions drags down all workers

September 05, 2005|By Bill Barry

THE IMPORTANCE of Labor Day - like most holidays - has been lost in a blur of baseball games, back-to-school days and fantastic storewide clearance sales. Over the years, newspapers used to offer at least a column on Labor Day as a kind of ritual acknowledgement of the union movement. But as union membership dwindles, even this annual recognition has slipped away.

Labor Day this year is especially important because the union movement is faced with a series of new, complicated and even dangerous challenges. While most attention has been focused on the splitting of the AFL-CIO, the main union federation, catastrophic splits are occurring on the picket lines around Northwest Airlines, where union members are violating the first commandment of unionism: Thou shalt not cross another's picket line.

It's time, then, to remember that Labor Day is a memorial to the courage and spirit of the workers in the first Labor Day parade in New York City in 1882 and to their vision of unionism as a powerful social movement.

That parade represented a band of outlaws, with no legal protection or representation, making the case for improved conditions for themselves and, most important, for all workers. These brave individuals were often members of secret organizations because open union membership usually led to immediate discharge, blacklisting, eviction and even execution. For early union members, hardship and struggle were simply the prices to be paid for trying to make their lives better.

Their issues were plain: higher wages and a shorter workday. The original Labor Day parade supported the demand for the eight-hour day and ultimately helped establish eight hours as a "normal" workday. The intent was to leave workers with free time for their families, for recreation and for self-improvement. It is a sign of the decline of union strength that the eight-hour day is still considered "normal."

Fundamentally, unionism was about money and power. While employers determined how the wealth of the United States was created, unionism demanded to negotiate how the wealth would be divided. While employers decided who was hired, unionism demanded that the terms of employment be fair, safe and healthy.

It is important to appreciate that a strong union movement, like a rising tide, lifted all workers. Over the past century, many employers raised wages and provided benefits simply to match union scales or implemented plans with the specific intention of "avoiding" unionism. Family health insurance, pensions, paid holidays and vacations - all became a kind of employment standard set by union workers and passed along to nonunion workers.

Unions used their political strength to push for laws - such as increases in the minimum wage, mandatory overtime pay and workers' compensation - that would benefit all workers. The United States prospered. Workers had money in their pockets to buy products, creating more employment, which created an upward economic spiral.

Fast-forward to 2005. Any attention to unionism focuses on the decline of union members - less than 9 percent in the private sector - and on the decreased political strength of organized labor.

The effects of declining unionism on working people generally are devastating:

Union members now earn about 28 percent more on average than nonunion workers as employers no longer feel a need to match the union standard.

Laws now allow any employer to declare bankruptcy - as Bethlehem Steel did - and avoid paying promised health or pension benefits.

The United States is still the only major industrialized country with no national health care plan. The system of job-related insurance means that 48 million Americans will not have health insurance for this year, according to the AFL-CIO.

Last year, new federal guidelines took effect to cancel overtime pay for millions of nonunion workers.

Fewer workers are covered by guaranteed pension plans, and even Social Security is under attack.

Employers feel confident about cheating workers out of pay, about locking them in at night, about forcing unpaid work. Wal-Mart, and not a union contract, has become the country's employment standard.

The economic losses have not simply disappeared down the drain of the global economy. Wealthy Americans have a larger share of the wealth than even the robber barons of 1882, and the gap between rich and poor in the United States never has been greater.

Labor Day is a testament to self-reliance and to solidarity, to workers joining with co-workers to make life better for themselves, their families and the country as a whole. If Labor Day celebrates unionism, however, the real lesson of Labor Day should be learned by the nonunion workers in this country, who have been waiting patiently and passively for their employers to improve their wages and working conditions.

Let's recognize the millions of organized workers on Labor Day by offering a challenge to workers worldwide: If you want to have better lives for yourselves and for your children, it's time to emulate those brave marchers of 1882 and get organized.

Bill Barry is director of labor studies at the Community College of Baltimore County.

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