New Orleans Most of the world celebrates workers and Labor Day on May 1st, but the vestiges of “better dead than red,” have diluted Labor Day in the USA to a celebration of the end of summer, school openings, and, oh, yeah, workers are worth noticing for a change. For pundits and journalists, it seems to have become an opportunity to take a glance at the working class, their issues and aspirations for sure, but also an opportunity to skewer unions, as the organized voice and collective institution of labor.
There’s no question that unions are being kicked on their long slow way down. There’s no way to pretend that a fall over the last seventy years from nearly a third of workers being union members to hardly one-tenth now being in unions now is a win of any sorts. Nonetheless that shouldn’t mean that it isn’t worth understanding the challenges that unions face, both internally and externally, rather than using them as a punching bag for below-the-belt shots. For example, on Veterans Day somehow non-vets and public talking heads are able to thank veterans for their service without pointing out the fact that the US armed forces have pretty steadily lost one war after another for the last seventy years even while sucking up the lions share of US tax dollars throughout the period.
The New York Times editorial for example powerfully pictured three workers in different locations trying to raise families while having to work long hours and multiple jobs because their primary employment just didn’t pay a family-supporting wage. Ok, point well taken.
The article in the Business section though offered a strained argument that workers were rising and ready for action and organization, but, essentially, unions were lagging and asleep at the wheel. The implicit recommendations were astounding. First, they argued that unions, which are funded and led by dues-paying members, should represent and advocate for workers regardless of whether or not they might ever be members. Secondly, stepping slightly back from that argument, the reporter suggested maybe the AFL-CIO, a federation of those same unions and supported by a small piece of those unions’ dues payers, should be the ones to fund and support nascent efforts at organizing disparate workers. This despite a declining organizing budget because of declining members, see above, and the fixation of federation leadership and member-unions with the primary function of the AFL-CIO which has almost always been politics, both elections and lobbying. Thirdly, there was a suggestion the federation should fund workers’ centers, which do many important things where they exist, but almost categorically do not see themselves as organizing sustainable unions. All of this is wrapped into an unprovable proposition that there is a rising movement of workers who are “fired up and won’t take it anymore!”
Oh, how I wish and pray! Show me where and take me there!
Meanwhile in the real world, almost weekly we read the latest decisions of the Trump NLRB eroding fundamental workers’ rights, changing workers classifications as employees, excusing employers’ deliberate efforts to rip them off, slowing down elections for organizing, giving incentives and faster elections to employers and workers challenging union representation and contracts, and all this is just the tip of that iceberg. I would challenge anyone to find any mention of any of this on Labor Day. Oh, but no one will have trouble finding some references to recent investigations involving the leadership of the UAW and its relationship to automakers.
Let’s celebrate all of labor on Labor Day, but let’s give some love to unions and the work unions do every day as well, and maybe for a change try to really understand the challenges they are facing in an environment and politics committed to their demise and dissolution.