Labor Day is about those of us doing the labor

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Today is Labor Day, one of our national holidays that allows millions of workers a day off to … celebrate the Labor Movement. The great irony being, indeed, one of the Right’s great lies, this holiday has nothing to do with the Labor Movement and unions. We roll our eyes at that one, but seriously, they want us to seriously believe it. Or convince us they seriously believe it.

Realistically, judging from the usual activities taking place across the nation it marks the end of summer, in a colloquial sense. Summer doesn’t actually end until … (looking it up) … September 23, 2015 on the Autumnal Equinox.

LifeguardFor the nation at large today, Monday, is the last day of summer. Starting tomorrow the public beaches start cutting back on their lifeguards and protected beach areas because most of the tourist season is over. People have to go back to school and work. Funny thing: while looking for a few photos to go with this post I came across a Labor Day post from a few years ago and the top photo was from the beach with the statement: “Just Another Day at the Beach.” Nothing has really changed since then, not that it was expected to, so this year we get a repeat of that sentiment.

  • Remember Sam Elliott in the movie Lifeguard? If you do you’re old.

This is the U.S.A. so I won’t get on a soapbox about how to celebrate this holiday. Go to the beach, stay home and watch action movie marathons, or go attend some Labor-related celebrations. In short: enjoy the day as you see fit.

As for the beaches in Southern California: from now until the end of October is the best time to visit by the way. The tourist vendors lower the prices on all their stuff and the beaches aren’t nearly as filled with touristas, which means you can walk up and down the beachwalks with less congestion.

And of course the hard bodies are still prevalent because the weather is still warm. Not that that’s the reason I go to the beach.

Anyway, today is Labor Day. However you want to describe it today, the holiday was first proposed by one of two union officials: Matthew Maguire of the Central Labor Union (CLU) or Peter McGuire of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), both in 1882. Before President Grover Cleveland signed it into law in 1894, 30 states had already adopted Labor Day as an official holiday.

For the states and the federal government, the holiday was to honor the workers of the land, the people who actually did build it (whatever “it” is) and the Labor Movement that brought the workers together into a collective force.

This is basically what industrialists feared about unions and what business leaders today fear about unions: once the workers unite in a collective force, like the AFL-CIO, the Teamsters, UAW, the Steelworkers and AFSCME (among others), they take power away from the business leaders. The workers can stop working and strike to get better wages and benefits.

Once unions became strong employers could no longer work their employees seven days a week, 12-16 hours a day for low wages. And the owners had to start making the workplace safe.

Here’s a list of everything the Labor Movement brought to American workers, that most of us take for granted today:

Peter J. McGuire (Wikipedia)
Peter J. McGuire (Wikipedia)

Forty-hour work week
Work-free weekends — although this has pretty well disappeared for many, if not most, American workers.
All your breaks including lunch
Family and Medical Leave Act
Occupational safety laws
Child labor laws
Workers’ Compensation
Unemployment insurance
Pensions, whistle-blower and sexual harassment laws, benefits like health and dental insurance, military leave (for reservists and National Guard), privacy rights, equal pay and the minimum wage, which hasn’t been raised, nationally, in years.

Unions improved the workplace for everyone, not just union employees.

Back in the day both political parties stood by the unions, although the unions most often supported the Democrats politically. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Republican, once famously said, “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. … Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

People opposed to labor unions are stupid …

Ike had written a letter to his brother Edgar in November 1954. There were anti-union voices in those years, but at the time they were few and mostly ignored. Eisenhower had no idea where his party would just 28 years later.

In a Labor Day speech Eisenhower gave to the AFL-CIO in 1955, he laid out the essentials for American prosperity, “The American worker strives for betterment not by destroying his employer and his employer’s business, but by understanding his employer’s problems of competition, prices, markets. And the American employer can never forget that, since mass production assumes a mass market, good wages and progressive employment practices for his employee are good business.”

Ike went on to castigate Karl Marx by affirming what everyone had known by then: the unions were primarily responsible for the creation of America’s Middle Class. This strata, the largest Middle Class in the world, was accomplished by the shared sacrifices and prosperity of the employer and the employees. Eisenhower, and most other people, saw this as a good thing.

Sure, the plant owner/CEO would make 25 times more than the average employee, but that was okay because the employees were doing pretty good themselves. They could buy homes, take their families on vacations to the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone National Park — Southern California even — and send their kids to college if they weren’t going to work in the factories and foundries that defined our culture. We were the most industrious of the industrialized world and the vast majority of us were okay with capitalism.

For instance, it was fine that Mr. Factory Owner had a $10 million dollar home in Malibu or La Jolla as long as we could buy homes in Glendale, Montebello; or in the San Diego area: Clairemont, Tierrasanta, or San Marcos — you get the picture. It probably helps to live in Southern Cali to get those references, but it’s the same all over America. You know where the rich people live as opposed to where the rest of us live.

Then the Republicans got nutty and nominated Ronald Reagan to be their presidential candidate in the 1980 elections. People who didn’t see the unions as an essential element of American prosperity supported Reagan. For them the unions were political foes, the enemy even.

On August 1, 1981 President Ronald Reagan fired over 11,000 air traffic controllers after they had gone on strike. This began the assault on workers and the Middle Class. (Wikipedia)
On August 1, 1981 President Ronald Reagan fired over 11,000 air traffic controllers after they had gone on strike. This began the assault on workers and the Middle Class. (Wikipedia)

When the U.S. hit a bit of a recession in the late 1970’s, the chorus began to cry, “It’s the fault of the unions!” Trying not to alienate the actual people who make up those unions, the anti-labor Republicans made sure to let everyone know they weren’t against the workers themselves, who were being forced to work under the tyrannical leadership of the unions, they were just against the unions.

The war against labor was on. Reagan fired the air traffic controllers, thereby eliminating their union, PATCO, and the long knives came out. Legislation was introduced all over America to stop unions. A new term was introduced into the American lexicon: “Right to Work.” That basically meant workers could not be forced to join unions to work in what might have been a union shop.

The unions, supported by the members who paid their dues, fought and bargained for the workers’ wages and benefits, but employees who didn’t pay the union dues benefited just as the union members. Eventually union membership began to decline and what do you know, wages have flat-lined over the last 30 years and benefits are nearly a thing of the past.

“Right to Work” also meant the employers had the right to fire anyone for any reason, with or without notice. It also meant a reduction in wages and benefits. You can still get health insurance through your employer, but you’re paying much more for it. And instead of getting a pension, your employer puts you in touch with a financial counselor who sets you up in a 401k investment account that is at the mercy of the stock and financial markets.

Public employees are different of course. Across America the public employees are represented by unions. But that doesn’t stop people from attacking the workers.

Across America states that are controlled by Republicans are attacking workers and their unions. My home state of Wisconsin was in the news when Governor Scott Walker immediately began attacking workers with legislation that ended their rights to collective bargaining.

As the statistics have proven, stripping workers of their rights hasn’t saved Wisconsin any money. Quite the contrary. Wisconsin is in a deeper financial hole than when Walker first took office. On Meet the Press Walker explained it away stating Wisconsin would be in an even deeper hole if he hadn’t instituted his reforms.

And now he’s running for president. Thankfully he is doing so poorly he will be out of it soon.

But, the attack on workers has weakened the unions, the Republicans’ real motive. They could care less about the state of the economy and the welfare of the Middle Class.

We’ve come a long since President Eisenhower called people like Scott Walker and his contemporaries “stupid.” Nearly 40 percent of American workers were represented by unions when Ike was president. Now, the percentage is about seven percent. The major result of this is the increase in income disparity. In the 1960’s the Middle Class got over half of the nation’s wealth. Now it’s about 24 percent. That money didn’t just disappear, it went to the top five percent of income earners (Edward N. Wolff, Department of Economics, New York University).

Dwight D. Eisenhower, our 34th president, was a friend for labor and the Middle Class. (Wikipedia)
Dwight D. Eisenhower, our 34th president, was a friend for labor and the Middle Class. (Wikipedia)

In fact, the top one tenth of one percent have an average yearly income of $27 million. The bottom 99 percent has an average annual income of $31,244. And remember, that bottom “99 percent” includes people who make hundreds of thousands a year. And it doesn’t include the poor who do not have a work income.

The survival of the Middle Class in America depends on strong union representation. The survival of America depends on the labor of its workers and that’s the point of Labor Day: honor the workers who did build America, from the roads and bridges to the factories and products that we’ve, collectively, sold here domestically and abroad. And we all reaped the benefits; employers and employees and just as importantly, the treasuries of the states and the federal government.

Yes, we all are having fun on this long weekend, but as the political campaigning gets started for 2016, it’s important to remember the Democrats’ number one constituency: the workers. A lot has been said about the small business owners, and they are an important part of our economy. But without well-paid employees, those products will have a smaller market. As Ike said over 60 years ago, “… since mass production assumes a mass market, good wages and progressive employment practices for the employee are good business.”