Labor Day lament: Whatever happened to all the unions?

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Today is Labor Day. How ironic. Labor, according to the crazy right, “labor” is the BIG problem in America today. Well, not the workers they say, the unions that represent the workers! It’s like they don’t know who makes up the unions. Or, more than likely, they choose to deny reality for their political ambitions. It’s great beating up on the unions, considering they almost invariably come out endorsing Democrat candidates for all the various offices.

There was the exception in the 1980’s when a couple of unions endorsed Ronald Reagan for president. One of those unions was PATCO, The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. They backed Reagan in the 1980 presidential election in the mistaken belief he would back them when it came time to negotiate their contract with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Workers demonstrating in front of a McDonalds, for higher wages. (YouTube)
Workers demonstrating in front of a McDonalds, for higher wages. (YouTube)

The workers soon found they had put their trust in the wrong guy. When the workers went on strike to win concessions for a shorter workweek, among other demands, in August 1981, Reagan fired all air traffic controllers that didn’t return to work. Since then it’s been pick on the unions.

When the bailout for General Motors and Chrysler was being negotiated, what the Right really wanted to do to give any support to the deal was break up the unions. It was incredible to see the auto companies standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the autoworkers union in those heated hearings on capital hill. The “Big Three” would not let go of their workers and the union that represents them.

To be sure, the unions gave a lot of concessions, lowering the cost of producing the cars, but in the end General Motors and Chrysler got the bail out, rebounded financially and have long since paid it all back.

The government is no longer in the automobile business.

Labor built this nation, did all the heavy lifting and until the unions came into existence, the workers paid a heavy price for all that labor: long, long hours, no such thing as overtime, dangerous and often deadly working conditions and no laws to protect women and children from predatory employers.

These days, with unemployment fairly low, the workers of America have taken it on the chin. In San Diego, a city still run by so-called conservatives, one of the main planks in our current mayor’s platform was to go after the benefits that city workers have, like their pensions. In the 1980s the city and its employees opted out of Social Security. At the time the city and its workers were doing very well financially. San Diego even got the official (but only sorta official) label of “America’s Finest City.” That was back in 1972 and everything San Diego had the city motto emblazoned on it, including police cars. The irony of that visual: police behind their vehicles, pointing their weapons at some perp and emblazoned on the doors: “America’s Finest City.” Boom!

The city began to remove the motto from all of its official documents, buildings and vehicles in 2005. It became a bit of a joke. But, for great weather and beaches, San Diego is still the finest.

Anyway, city workers opted out of the Social Security system on the promos that they would have a pension program that would keep city employees living comfortably after retiring from their jobs. Well, things went a little south for everyone in the San Diego area so the city wanted to dump the pension and other benefits city workers received. Since the late 1990s the city employees, represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — AFSCME — have come under attack by the city government to give up the pension program.

Since 2012 all new hires have to take the Social Security safety net and get a 401(k) style retirement account. That plan was forced on the city by the state so new hires would at least have Social Security to rely on when they retire. Conservatives objected of course. They thought the city (not the employees) should have had the money to invest in other interest-bearing accounts. In other words the futures of new hires would be at the mercy of the stock market.

The point is the union is representing and doing its best to protect the workers from the vultures. Roughly 11 percent of America’s workers are represented by unions. In the private sector only 6.7 percent.

Vice President Joe Biden giving his speech in Pittsburgh, PA before a crowd of enthusiastic union members. (YouTube)
Vice President Joe Biden giving his speech in Pittsburgh, PA before a crowd of enthusiastic union members. (YouTube)

As Vice President Joe Biden so accurately pointed out, it was the unions that built the Middle Class. In a speech he gave last year in Pittsburgh, PA, Biden said the Chamber of Commerce, “Flat out declared war. Not a joke, not an exaggeration, because you’re the only ones who have the power to keep the barbarians from the gates, man.” He then said, to the union audience “You built the Middle Class. That’s not an exaggeration. And as you’ve declined the Middle Class has declined.”

No truer words have been spoken about the declining Middle Class.

Well, here’s a newsflash, Labor Day was created to honor the working class and the unions that represent some of them, now less than 12 percent of all employees in America. For most Americans it’s the last weekend of summer and Labor Day is another federal holiday, an official Monday off from work. Not all workers of course. We live in one of the most Draconian societies when it comes to labor and respecting workers. We are the only industrialized nation that doesn’t guarantee Maternity Leave for pregnant women. We don’t guarantee vacation time. In fact most workers are afraid to take vacations lest their jobs be taken away and given to someone else. Our minimum wage is one of the lowest, the list could go on.

It isn’t about sales, cheaper furniture or 0% car loans. Well, for many it is, for a lot of workers who are on the job today hoping the sales offers will draw in enough shoppers to ensure they have a job Tuesday.

Today is a holiday to commemorate the idea of labor, maybe as it once was, when the men and women in the Middle Class were secure in the idea that they had a good paying job for life and their retirement years would be (mostly) happy and comfortable. It isn’t that way today of course. After 30 years of decline being afraid of losing your job, working for barely subsistence wages and very few benefits has become normal. This day commemorates that and the workers of today, especially those who spent the day on the job. This day is for you.

So, salute to all the workers, the one who actually do the heavy lifting, and the unions that have worked hard to make life in America better for those who do the work. Maybe one day the Middle Class will grow instead of shrink and give workers the peace of mind the Middle Class once enjoyed. Call me a dreamer.