Labor Day's Significance Gets Overlooked

By Diane Stafford and Randolph Heaster

The Kansas City Star

Sunday 02 September 2007

Months before September, Kansas City labor unions each year put out the call for entries in the annual Labor Day parade.

Union members always respond. Floats, front loaders and Fords travel for a few blocks in front of family and fellow union members. Today's local festivities culminate with a picnic at the Liberty Memorial.

Most of the rest of the area's population finds something else to do. Some go to the lake. Some shop. Some simply mow the lawn and crack open a beer.

For most, the Labor Day holiday simply doesn't pack the emotional punch of the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving.

For most, it's just a summer bookend to Memorial Day, another observation that means much to a few but not many.

Robert Davis, who has worked at Clay & Bailey Manufacturing Co. for nearly 11 years, will spend today helping celebrate his brother's birthday. Although Davis won't be participating in any Labor Day-related events, he said he understands the holiday's significance.

"It's a working man's holiday," said Davis, a furnace operator and member of the United Steelworkers of America. "You appreciate a day like that. I'll be relaxing and getting ready for the workweek."

But the typical American doesn't spend much time these days thinking about Labor Day's reason for being. He or she doesn't dwell on organized labor's role in pushing for a living wage, the 40-hour workweek, employer-provided health-care coverage and workplace safety.

In fact, as the once-pervasive influence of organized labor continues to ebb, some worry that Labor Day has lost relevance for the masses. They hope it finds renewed meaning in a slightly different context.

"The day should be for the recognition of the nation's number one resource, and that's workers in general," said Garry Kemp, business manager of the Greater Kansas City Building & Construction Trades Council.

"It's not a union-or-nonunion issue. As the ranks of organized labor continue to dwindle, there is less recognition of labor because it's the union movement that has carried that banner. We now need others to recognize our most important resource - which is skilled workers."

Glorious Past

Labor Day was a holiday conceived in 1882, at a meeting of the Central Labor Union in New York City.

At the time, the average American worker worked 12-hour days, six and sometimes seven days a week. There were no watchdog agencies dedicated to worker safety or worker rights.

It actually took Congress 12 years after that 1882 union meeting to declare an official Labor Day holiday. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland, himself no fan of organized labor, signed it into law.

The nation's first Labor Day observance was held in Detroit, attracting about 50,000 people - labor members and observers.

It didn't take long, though, for tired workers (even ardent union members) to use the holiday to rest rather than march. By 1900, accounts tell of unions fining their members for not participating in official Labor Day programs.

Union power coalesced a second time in the depths of the Great Depression. Strikes became an effective tool to campaign for higher wages and job security. It was then, in the 1930s, that many of the federal worker-protection laws were born.

Agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor, the National Labor Relations Board and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration emerged to monitor what, in some opinions, became a confusing plethora of workplace laws.

Mandatory employer taxes to help support workers who were injured or disabled on the job and to help finance workers' retirements also became part of the business landscape.

By the 1950s, nearly half of all U.S. workers belonged to unions. From the late 1930s through the early 1970s, the labor movement was truly robust.

But in recent years, the power of labor has waned. According to federal statistics, only 12 percent of U.S. workers now are covered by collective bargaining agreements.

And if government employees aren't included in the mix, the percentage of workers in the private work force who are union members plummets to 7 percent.

A former U.S. labor secretary, Robert Reich, traces organized labor's decline to President Ronald Reagan's firing of the unionized air traffic controllers in the early 1980s and the "greed is good" mantra popularized in that decade.

"But don't blame Ronald Reagan or corporate greed," Reich wrote in his recent "What Happened to Labor Day?" blog entry. "Blame us - you and me

"We as a nation have traded off lower-priced goods and services in place of a unionized work force with the bargaining clout to get higher wages. So now, a lot of us get good consumer deals and lousy paychecks."

Many younger workers today don't know anyone who belongs to a union, and, unless they studied the labor movement in school, have no idea how labor won its day.

And they have no idea how many of the rights they take for granted were due to organized labor.

Uncertain Future

The decline of union membership suits some workers and managers just fine. They prefer a freer market system where individuals are hired and paid on their perceived individual merit.

Others look at comparative income tables and note that in an "at will" employment economy, earnings pale for nonunion members compared with union members.

In 2006, for example, full-time wage and salary workers who were union members had median usual weekly earnings of $833, compared with a median of $642 for workers who were not represented by unions.

Kemp said the challenges of the global economy call for U.S. employers and government leaders to work together to focus more on U.S. worker education and training.

"Our ability to compete in global markets is dependent on our skilled work force, and I believe we will begin facing major shortages in the number of skilled workers we have in the coming years," he said.

Whether workers and management view each other as adversaries or allies in that war for talent, democracy allows "the idea of workers joining together to have a say in what goes on in their workplace," said Clete Daniel, professor of American labor history at Cornell University.

"Even in a time when union membership is declining, that idea is still present in many workers' minds," Daniel said.

"We've had this ideological wall of opposition to the idea of workplace democracy for decades now. But unions like the SEIU and UNITE HERE are having success convincing some of our lowest-paid workers to join. There's something about relationships in the workplace that people intuitively understand the way to make things better is to have an equal role in saying what's fair."

For Daniel, that's why Labor Day will never lose its meaning.

"For some part of the working class, it's a holiday that is symbolic of all their hopes," he said.