Today is Labor Day, when Americans across the country celebrate — or mourn — the end of summer. The end of summer doesn’t really arrive until September 22 when the autumnal Equinox ushers in Autumn, but Labor Day is the last day of vacation season. Hence, the last day of summer for most people.
Labor Day was started in the 1880’s as labor unions began to grow. Someone proposed a day set aside for labor and for the next ten years 30 states adopted a “Labor Day,” until it became a federal holiday in 1894.
Bloody battles were fought to secure the rights of the workers. They went on strike for the 40-hour work week, anti-child labor laws and the right to organize into unions, the minimum wage. By the time the 1960s came around a third of U.S. workers belonged to unions. We can click off the names: AFL-CIO, United Autoworkers, the Teamsters, AFSCME (The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) and all their affiliated unions under the various umbrellas.
But then the Vietnam War came, with its anti-war protests and union members saw the protestors as being unpatriotic and often fought with the anti-war movement. The saw the civil rights protestors in the same light. Labor began to fracture as they identified with super patriotic rhetoric of the right, even as that political movement was seeking to tear down the unions.
Then, in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president and ushered in the anti-labor movement. Union membership began to decline, wages began to stagnate and companies were given tax breaks to move their operations off shore to take advantage of cheap labor.
The Democratic Party, which was supposed to be the champion of labor unions, did little or nothing to stop Reagan’s policies. So much so that now about seven percent of American workers are represented by unions.
Soon after someone introduced the “Right to Work” laws which are designed to weaken union participation. But they also give employers broad discretion in hiring, firing and wages. Twenty-eight states now have right-to-work laws and union membership has fallen across the country. Not coincidentally, wages have been stagnating, or even declined in some sectors, since the 1980s.
The reason being the government has effectively taken power away from the workers and put it in the hands of industrial leaders. We might have a right to work, but that doesn’t guarantee we’ll be paid a living wage or have benefits sufficient to look after our health and retirement.
Collective bargaining works. When unions were strong wages were up, workers had pensions — they didn’t rely on 401(k) plans for retirement, like those decimated in the 2008 recession.
Then companies began looting pension plans, leaving their workers and retirees high and dry.
So who should we blame for the decline of workers’ rights? Let’s start with the Democratic Party for not standing up for labor strong enough. In the Reagan years they tried to win back the votes of union members by acquiescing to the right’s demands for less union control. President Reagan infamously fired the members of PATCO, the air traffic controllers. Democrats did little to stop him. Partly because PATCO had come out in support of Reagan in 1980. Workers thought if they turned away from unions the manufacturing jobs would come back — which didn’t happen. They thought they could get other good paying jobs — they didn’t.
The perfect movie to watch on Labor Day is Michael Moore’s landmark documentary, Roger and Me. Moore set out to find former GM CEO Roger Smith to ask him why he decided to close all of General Motors’ operations in Flint, MI, putting 30,000 people out of work and thus destroying the city.
It’s a funny movie, but sad, as Moore documented the crushed lives of the citizens of Flint. General Motors destroyed Flint to get higher profits.
You can pay to watch the film on YouTube for $2.99.
GM is by no means the only American auto manufacturer to do that. Ford, the Mopar brands: Dodge, Chrysler, Plymouth and of course American Motors of Kenosha, WI. Mopar bought up AM with the promise that they wouldn’t close any Wisconsin plants — but then they immediately announced the plant closings after the buyout. Chrysler has since been bought out by Fiat.
Nor is the auto industry the only one that went south during the 1980s. Steel plants, foundries, closed all over the Midwest, including my hometown of Milwaukee, WI. Manufacturing jobs left, which meant the railroad industry — the shipping industry in general — slowed to nothing. Where once a great rail yard sullied the Menomonee River Valley there stands empty land and buildings and a casino owned by the Forest County Potawatomi Community. Simply enough the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino.
Along with the foundries many other companies closed their plants in Milwaukee: Two of the three breweries that made the Cream City famous, Pabst and Schlitz, Allis-Chalmers, Louis Allis, Kearney & Trecker, Delco, AC Spark Plug, Outboard Marine and others. Allen-Bradley (now Rockwell) significantly reduced its workforce in Milwaukee.
The Jobs have come back to MKE, the ubiquitous “They” say, but are the wages equal to those of the manufacturing that left over 30 years ago? It’s a rhetorical question of course. The answer is no.
These are just two cities as examples: Flint, MI and Milwaukee, WI. But look at all of Michigan and Wisconsin, plus Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, the numbers are staggering. And it’s by no means limited to the Midwest — the “Rust Belt.”
So on this Labor Day I ask the union leaders what are they doing to grow their memberships, what are they doing for the working man and woman in this country? Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, James P. Hoffa, President of the Teamsters and Lee Saunders of AFSCME.
Tell us why so many union members voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in last year’s election. Why did your endorsement mean so little to the rank and file?
As for the leadership of the Democratic Party: We all know Donald Trump and the Republican Party are a disaster and the only legislation they could possibly get done this year is another round of tax cuts for the wealthy and business. But what will you Tom Perez, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, along with Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Minority Leader in the House of Representatives and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) Minority Leader in the U.S. Senate offer the working people of America in 2018? Being against Donald Trump and the GOP isn’t enough. We need real economic recovery; not just from the disastrous recession of 2008, but from the last 36 years of GOP policies that have decimated the Middle Class. We need jobs in the renewable energy sector, massive infrastructure overhaul, just two industries that could employ millions of Americans. Start there and we would see a great economic recovery, not just a Wall Street recovery.
We can all blame the GOP and big business — volumes can be written about the oil and gas industry and how it is destroying the planet for instance — but America needs good paying jobs and affordable housing. And once and for all we could make health care a right, not a privilege to those that can afford it.
Those are my thoughts on Labor Day. Go march in your parades, honor the sacrifice and commitment of the past labor movement. But then on September 5 go back to work and make America great again, Donald Trump got one thing right in the 2016 election: that slogan.
The character of Will McAvoy (Played by Jeff Daniels, written by Aaron Sorkin) on the HBO Show The Newsroom got it right: The United States isn’t the greatest country in the world anymore.
“… there’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number 4 in labor force and number 4 in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies.”
That about sums up America and American labor in 2017. Happy Labor Day.
All photos are YouTube screenshots unless otherwise noted
Top photo TWU local 234 in Philadelphia marching in their Labor Day parade
Tim Forkes started as a writer on a small alternative newspaper in Milwaukee called the Crazy Shepherd. Writing about entertainment, he had the opportunity to speak with many people in show business, from the very famous to the people struggling to find an audience. In 1992 Tim moved to San Diego, CA and pursued other interests, but remained a freelance writer. Upon arrival in Southern California he was struck by how the elected government officials and business were so intertwined, far more so than he had witnessed in Wisconsin. His interest in entertainment began to wane and the business of politics took its place. He had always been interested in politics, his mother had been a Democratic Party official in Milwaukee, WI, so he sat down to dinner with many of Wisconsin’s greatest political names of the 20th Century: William Proxmire and Clem Zablocki chief among them. As a Marine Corps veteran, Tim has a great interest in veteran affairs, primarily as they relate to the men and women serving and their families. As far as Tim is concerned, the military-industrial complex has enough support. How the men and women who serve are treated is reprehensible, while in the military and especially once they become veterans. Tim would like to help change that.