Opinion: Republicans Should Use this Labor Day to Ponder their Assault on the American Worker

Sunday, September 04, 2011 - 08:00 PM

Samuel Gompers and other political activists and labor leaders addressed Shirtwaist workers at Cooper Union November 22, 1909. Gompers noted the terrible working conditions, long hours and poor wages.

While we'll enjoy a long weekend, final summer trips to the beach and ubiquitous barbecues this coming Monday, it won't be a "happy Labor Day" for the people for whom the holiday is named: Labor.

The holiday has drifted considerably from its roots (as have many holidays - Presidents Day wasn't originally designed to boost auto sales) and become more of a seasonal marker than a remembrance, but once upon a time Labor Day was an acknowledgement of the contributions by the organized workforce that was building our country. There was an era, if you could believe it, when powerful interests attacked workers, and when it was in the interests of politicians to reconcile the situation by offering some sign of respect and recognition to unions.

Twelve decades later and there are still powerful interests who attack working Americans on all fronts. This year has seen an unprecedented assault on the rights of workers to organize, starting in Wisconsin and spreading across the country. Unions have fought back and found allies in non-unionized Americans who recognize the right to organize as a fundamental American value; they have won early races in Wisconsin that have given their opponents pause --but in many states, the damage has been done - and ensured there will be less to celebrate this Labor Day in years past.

While there have always been forces that attack workers, the big change is how fewer are the politicians brave enough to stand with labor now than there were in 1894 when Congress authorized the holiday. Such legislation would never pass in Boehner's House. In fact, it's only a matter of time before today's Congress seeks to change Labor Day to Capital Day. In the end, they will only compromise and call it "Ronald Reagan Labor Day" if the White House cuts more jobs programs.

Given how difficult GOP politicians want to make it for workers to join unions, it's surprising how many of these same elected officials want to join labor themselves - specifically at Labor Day celebrations around the country. So these politicians received a surprise when local parade organizers in a Wisconsin town banned all Republicans from this year's parade.

Republicans explained they wanted to put aside differences and participate in "family-friendly fun." The non-partisan mayor is now threatening to pull municipal funding if Republicans are excluded.

And that's what Labor Day has transformed into: Not about the history of labor, respect for union or an opportunity to affirm our commitment to fundamental worker rights, just a chance for some family-friendly fun.

That family-friendly fun, by the way, is made possible by child labor laws, weekends and minimum wage - all progress that was championed by labor unions. But you won't hear about that on Monday, politicians will be too busy discussing how to get government out of the way of Big Business and regular Americans will be too preoccupied worrying about their economic future.

But if you can give a few minutes of your vacation day to remember the history of the occasion - a battle to improve the lives of the American worker that continues to today - there's a question you can and should ask every official and candidate: "If you want to march with us, why won't you stand with us?"

Let us know what they say when you come back from your long weekend, brought to you by American labor.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."


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Comments [7]

WNYC is listener-sponsored not publicly funded - i.e. uses tax money. So they can put whatever title they like on an Opinion piece...

Do you make similar posts on FoxNews websites that their news is seldom fair and never balanced? Frequently, it is not even news.

Sep. 11 2011 11:10 AM

Union Workers are NOT spoiled. Through their collective action they HAVE maintained their standard of living while it has fallen for the rest of us.
Easy example, how much labor did it take to buy, say, a pack of chewing gum in 1968? One minute. 5 cent pack of gum at the average hourly wage of $3/hr. In 2011, the average wage is $20and change/hr. Therefore, one minute of labor is 35 cents. Seen any 33 cent packs of gum lately?
Since 1968, average wages have only tracked to inflation (6.4x) while the GDP has exploded 10X above that. By excluding the average wage from all of that growth the middle class has been robbed of much of their buying power. My calc says that average hourly pay should be around $50/hr. If your pay is not, then you are being robbed, too. And guess who is robbing you...Hint: It's not union workers.

Sep. 11 2011 11:04 AM
Marketfog from Naugatuck, CT & Palm Coast, FL

After having been screwed by bad managers, including one where my immediate management pleaded guilty to several US and EU antitrust violations (I was not involved, it's why I was screwed), I strongly support unions. I support responsible unions which not only support their members but help management by pointing out poor management practices, business opportunities, appropriate new technology, etc. I oppose bad unions like the one that shut down a steel plant because one of my former h.s. classmates (who was a frightful piece of work) was screwing off , not doing his job, and creating a danger for himself, his coworkers and the plant.

Why are there unions? It's simple --bad management. Oppressive and repeated poor management practices will cause the workforce to rebell and form a union. Unfortunately, the stresses which first cause workers to form a union, are often not recognized by management. The Postal Service is one example of poor management. Although it has several union contracts which date back nearly a century, it consistently violates provisions of those contracts thousands of times a day. Most violations are the same violations day after day. When grievances are resolved at lower levels they most frequently favor the union. When grievances reach the arbitrator level, they favor the union in the majority of cases because they are outright violations of the contract. When I was in supervisor training, I was told "see what you can get away with, the Post Office will pay the arbitration award later". The real problem at the Postal Service is, it is a multi-billion $ corporation being run by high school graduates.

Sep. 06 2011 09:50 AM

@Brad O'Neill - Teachers aren't worth paying a decent wage? Excuse me? Service profession, like wait staff or valet car parker? Have you ever heard of a wait staff person being required to have a Master's degree and to keep paying for Continuing Ed credits just to keep a job? Have you ever heard of a wait staff person having to supply napkins and table salt, like teachers buy supplies for their students? I'm guessing you're a young frat-boy banker being trained to loot the economy before the snot has dried under your condescending nose. How dare you!

Sep. 06 2011 09:43 AM
Brad O'Neill

The unions no longer represent the oppressed they represent the spoiled. The pendulum has swung to the point where union demands have forced the closure of many businesses. spoiled teachers no longer see themselves as a service provider and instead see themselves as entitled to living a lifestyle far above what a service profession should provide.

Sep. 05 2011 02:05 PM
ChrisS from New York

Opinion page or not, why "Republicans Should Use this Labor Day to Ponder their Assault on the American Worker" title alone is on a publicly-funded website baffles me but I digress.

The GOP did not assault the american worker, the american worker took advantage of this country and in essence the american worker assaulted himself.

The people are over the glorified mob-rule that Big Labor is. You diced around the edges of what really happened in Wisconsin.

Scott Walker campaigned on balancing the budget closing a massive budget deficit by curtailing out of control public-labor employees (who produce nothing directly to the GDP other than investments in education and infrastructure which has universally been failing when compared to our competitors), And guess what? The people elected him.

When he put forth the bill that he campaigned on all the unions huffed and puffed but eventually the public was not in favor of their representatives leaving the state rather than voting and guess what, Walkers budget passed.

Than the soar losers pushed for recalls and made legislators, in a 2-year term, waste millions in campaigning and time that could be used to create policy, to run for reelection again in recalls. And guess what, the majority of Wisconsins supported their Republican representatives.

When that labor president in Wausau banned GOP from labor-day parade guess what happened? The public from not only wisconsin but across the country collective said "ENOUGH ALREADY, SHUT UP" and he folded inviting them back after public ridicule.

Get over it Big Labor, your out of controlled days are numbered, and it is not the GOP saying that, but the public and collective world economy.

Sep. 05 2011 01:14 PM

We hear and read much about the importance of 'democracy'. We are given to understand that it provides the people with a counterweight to the might of the state. The right to have elected representatives who will, in theory, look out for our interests is considered the very foundation of our national character.

Isn't it curious, therefore, that some of the same people who espouse fervent belief in the above have trouble mapping the concept onto the rights of workers vs. the might of the company?

Go figure.

Sep. 05 2011 07:23 AM

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