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Labor Day and Unions: Making America Work

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This Labor Day, America's unions face a back to school autumn that will redefine their relevance in our river of politics and power.

The historic relevance of unions is easy to see: The country got a big boost through the success of union workers like public school teachers who, along with dog-hated mailmen, spend their middle-class paychecks and thus enhance our middle-class economy.

Now America's whole middle class is in trouble. Pick your set of statistics or ideological argument from the left or the right to back up what all of us know: If you're stuck in the middle, you're holding on by your fingernails and watching neighbors disappear behind foreclosure signs.

Those teachers are the workers for the other main force besides unions that expanded America's middle class: public education. President Dwight Eisenhower juiced up our public schools because the Communists who pledged to bury us shot a 184-pound steel ball of science into orbit around our lonely planet. America's children had to get smart to beat the bad guys. While that Cold War educational boom produced such wonders as cordless power tools and this Internet, those learn to think schools also birthed an unintended consequence: questioning baby boomers who rocked the ship of state before climbing on board as middle-class consumers. Now 53 years later, we're all sure those same public schools suck.

Labor Day, UnionsAs does American manufacturing, where we underperform from steel to cars to "green energy," which may be our best hope to battle global climate change that this year may have fueled the crises of 20 million flooded-out Pakistanis, Russia's near-apocalyptic fires and our Red Cross needing to respond to more than 30 U.S. weather-related catastrophes, like tornadoes.

What we've manufactured since the late 20th century's decline of unions -- while we also mangled government regulations and watchdogs created by our Depression-forged grandparents and parents -- are bimbo celebrities and "financial instruments" like derivatives that brought billions of dollars in profit and then billions more in (necessary) government bailout/welfare checks and (outrageous) bonuses to Wall Street suits.

Plus, we all seem to hate our medical system. Places like Hawaii are "consolidating" public schools. Lawrence, Massachusetts, is closing half its fire houses. Camden, New Jersey, is closing libraries. Colorado Springs is turning off streetlights. Whether it's minds or Mayberry, the middle class and our governments are so cash-strapped we're casting America into darkness.

Wherever our cash went, it didn't settle in the middle or trickle down. Could be it's in some Enron/Lehman Brothers/Goldman Sachs/Bernie Madoff posh Hamptons retreat, on vacation. Could be in China.

What we're left with is a culture that's justifiably angry and scared -- sometimes surreally so (warning: profane language in hyperlink) -- and susceptible to hollow slogans and rabble-rousing cheerleaders. From slightly worse 20th-century economic rubble rose two political monsters: Fascism from the right and Communism from the left, both of them falsely patriotic, unworkable, homicidal, and distinguishable from each other primarily by the fashion statements of their secret police.

Which brings us to 2010's Labor Day and America's unions.

My father hated labor unions.

I'm a card-carrying member of an AFL-CIO union.

Back in the Montana Dust Bowl days, my father worked his way off the nowhere patch of prairie his farm family "proved out" under federal government homestead programs (which gave land to both railroad corporations and "regular" Americans). Dad landed a job as a small-town movie house projectionist. He took pride in his craft, so when he heard about a projectionists union in the big city 87 miles away, he borrowed a car, put on his only suit and tie, and drove there expecting that a fair but arduous test of his skills would win him membership in a corps of honorable professionals.

What he found was "some nasty drunk" who didn't care about the quality of Dad's work. Dad stormed out of the union office, convinced he'd visited a den of evil and that all unions came from a den of evil. It was a philosophy he believed his whole life, even when Dad managed a trucking firm and the evilest of evil crews, the Teamsters, endorsed Dad's hero, Republican Richard Nixon, for president -- a mutual embrace that left Dad speechless.

Probably the union rep who schooled my father was "mob linked" -- a plague infecting unions in more complex ways than clichés would have us believe, including Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa using the mob to attack the rival CIO. From "On the Waterfront" to real-life pension funds, organized crime has bedeviled America's unions.

As have other clichés, like featherbedding and "rubber rooms" in New York, where union-protected teachers who'd been kicked out of classrooms, often for incompetence or worse, come to do nothing except draw tax-paid salaries that suck school budgets down the drain.

And yet, I'm a union man -- Writers Guild of America, East, walked a picket line in the last strike -- and a fan of organized labor.
Because it's about power. One of the smartest concepts America embraced is checks and balances. The more honest, fair, and robust our labor movement, the better chance those of us who are stuck in 2010's grim middle have that Big Labor will work as a check and balance to Big Money, Big Government and Big Madness.

Worked before. Right now, we've got this middle-class summer holiday largely because of organized labor. Wage and work safety laws. Child labor laws. A cultural sense -- articulated by Republican President Eisenhower to the first AFL-CIO convention -- that Americans should be more than wage slaves and that unions are key to that dream. And after early days of discrimination, America's labor unions supported civil rights battles against the Big Madness of racism.

After this holiday weekend, Big Labor faces our not so brave new world, where even the same old politics of who gets what seems changed.

In our high un- and under-employment predicament, the 20th-century job-exporting trend that vaporized so many American paychecks and cost unions members now means that even American lawyers find their jobs outsourced to India. A "worker" is as likely to be contracted labor in front of a computer in his apartment anywhere as to be welding on a factory assembly line in Ohio.

Big Labor is regrouping. Five years ago, six major unions left the umbrella AFL-CIO in disputes that cut the labor giant's political clout. Now two of those unions are rejoining the AFL-CIO, bringing about a million members back into the fold of labor's biggest organization.

And while we may never see the active partnership between labor and management that was envisioned by both Presidents Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan (the latter the first union leader elected America's president, who was both wildly popular with union members and yet known for "busting" a union), union-management alliances are being encouraged by such labor giants as the United Auto Workers.

One way or another, Big Labor will march into tomorrow.

Big Labor won't get anywhere worth going if they don't address the truths within the critical clichés. Protecting bad workers creates bad unions and undercuts America's competitive chances. Corruption cannibalizes any organization. Self-interest is never separate from the public good: prison guard unions -- allied with Big Money's lobbyists -- don't protect their members when they insist that the answer to crime is to build more prisons in our land of the free, which is already the world's leading jailer. Big Labor's strategies must reflect today's complexities, not yesterday's paradigms.

Every day is a day of labor. Let's hope that 2010's holiday starts an era when life works better for all of us.

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punnster

Compared with the majority of working Americans, Those in unions are in the upper middle class. Our government is catering to them for votes at our expense.

September 06 2010 at 5:53 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to punnster's comment
wolfsonnydiane

thats because only those with union jobs are left in the middle class all those who think unions are bad have had their income slowly but surely deminished.and like a frog in a pot of water being heated they never figure it out

September 06 2010 at 8:40 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
heinerscar

That narrative is attractive but it misses in some critical details. For example, Sputnik wasn't a "184 pound steel ball of science," but was made of an aluminum-magnesium-titanium alloy. That sounds like nitpicking, but it isn't--a steel satellite doesn't work. Ditto for the idea that high-paid union workers fund the middle class with their paychecks. Economically, that's not true, it isn't a universal gain for everyone--the higher union wages are paid by the rest of us, and come at our expense. Now it's fine and great when people contribute to a cause and reap a share in the bounty; the problem is when monopolies (unions) take more than they should. That drives the price of goods up for other people. And, it drives companies out of state, out of the country, and out of business. So, unions can do good things, but let's not forget the costs when they get greedy.

September 06 2010 at 5:29 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to heinerscar's comment
bopaan

Simply put the Auto industry in the 50s 60s and 70s had no competition when unions bargained for higher wages and more benefits the Auto companies gave it to them and just raised the price to the consumer to cover the expense. Then in the late 70s gas prices skyrocked, foriegn cars were being imported that got great gas milege and had much higher quality. The auto industry did not make the concessions needed and lost a huge share of the market to foriegn cars. The Big Three have been struggling ever sense. Higher labor cost and contracts priced the Union worker out of the market in the auto industry. Because the industry could not escape union labor and its high cost eventually the industry is being eliminated. The foreign car companies that now manufacturer here are located in right to work state to escape the union. They pay really good wages and benefits.

September 07 2010 at 8:43 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
richard

What no pro-union person ever really gets is that companies cannot give raises just because the union demands them. Companies can only give raises if they have more money. And they can only get more money if productivity is increased. In other words workers can only get raises if they increase their productivity. They can't get raises from strikes, or walking picket lines, or boycotts, or minimum wage legislation, or any other legislation by politician, or from presidential decrees, or even by storming headquarters and forcing management to agree to a pay raise. None of these put more mone in a company's till. If workers demand and get more money than the company has to give, then the company goes out of business, like GM. Or else it moves to another country, like so many companies we've seen. This all seems fairly elimentary. But I have never seen any evidence that any union leader or union supporter gets it.

September 06 2010 at 4:42 PM Report abuse +16 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to richard's comment
wolfsonnydiane

No union has ever caused the demise of a company Poor management is the demise of any company. Union workers create the product [designed by management] [can only get a contract management agrees to]. The piss poor quality of the product[manasgements failure to control product quality][failure to control product liability is managements fault] [failure to control product cost again managements faault] Just what the heck was management doing all those years playing golf Gm amd Chrysler was going down the tubes

September 06 2010 at 8:49 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
melb7720

The American Unions for the most part can take credit for their part in lifting American Labors from the Sweat Shops of the past. The wages, working conditions, safety,and other basic human needs were not considered by the Owners of Large businesses and Corperations.They should be given credit for raising the working standards America Labor This is 2010 and the Unions are not what they were, they are part and parcel of the problems facing America, Big Government, Big Business, Big Unions. Yes, there is greed every where. This nations needs to get back to where it was when, Business, Unions worked together to make us stong and proud with less Government interefence and reglations. America, business and labor working together can make "Made in America" the standard that all the world again. Stop Big Government. If Management and Labor work together ther is nothing they can't do.

September 06 2010 at 1:44 PM Report abuse +12 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to melb7720's comment
wolfsonnydiane

I can tell you this no unions to set the wage and benefit standard companys would cut your wages and your benefits at their whim

September 06 2010 at 8:51 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
Dave

I was once in a union many years ago and dropped out after a few years. The union heads decided that some of the benefits our group of workers had could be traded for other 'things' they wanted from management. Eventually the work place became droll and unfriendly and I left shortly thereafter. I believe that unions were necessary in the early industrial days because of worker abuse, but I don't see their relevance today. If they are now so self sufficient, why is it that many of the large unions have retirement plans that may have to be bailed out by the american tax payer?

September 06 2010 at 12:55 PM Report abuse +14 rate up rate down Reply
C.B.M.

All the teachers union seeks is higher and higher wages for incompetent teachers and to heck with educating our children. Seldom do unions work for the good of our nation. They are ONLY concerned about their power and political influence. Their motto, ME FIRST AND ONLY ME or US FIRST AND ONLY US

September 06 2010 at 12:52 PM Report abuse +15 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to C.B.M.'s comment
pttypinkley

Sorry, you could not be more wrong...I'm a teacher and the salary is not sustainable, most teachers have to have two jobs to make ends meet...you are so wrong.

September 06 2010 at 10:56 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
monroelaw

I hate unions and I know why. I saw them ruin a once vibrant manufacturing economy in New England. Marching hand in hand with Democrat legislatures they drove out the very jobs that made New England a manufacturing powerhouse. Now they wnat to blame those that they savaged for the results of their own greed and shortsightedness. No more. We know who you are and we know what you did. Your days are numbered as surely as those of your bought and paid for flunky Obama. We saw what you did to California and we aren't having any of it. We are going to sit back and watch you fight it out with your retirees. You made the promises now you keep them without sticking your dirty hands in our pockets.

September 06 2010 at 12:26 PM Report abuse +18 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to monroelaw's comment
AZ Stang

cjjanis------ So you're saying you didn't pay ANY attention to the trouble that General Motors went through? Their fatcat unions got soo greedy over the last 30 years that it made the entire company unstable. That's what happens when corporations trust unions.

September 06 2010 at 3:33 PM Report abuse +13 rate up rate down Reply
djkalai

I truly can believe that ms75c is labeling unions as communist. Without unions there would be no public schools. Maybe you should learn more about American history then Communism. Union maybe their own worst enemy, but without them the workforce and work place would be a total dictatorship. why shouldn't a employee have a voice in the workplace ? Americans have to wake up to reality. we have to start to regain our unity as a country. Unions are not bad for our country. Greed is. we have been taught at an early age, that as an American we have rights. Its we unite and help all our citizens learn how to use them.

September 06 2010 at 12:07 PM Report abuse -19 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to djkalai's comment
jlmabry

The problem is that the Unions are as greedy as the corporation is! It's me, me, me for the Unions. It's shareholder value (short term) for the corporation. In a time of economic down-turn, the Unions want to hold on to salary and hours. How about sharing the hours, reduced hours and reduced pay so that lay-offs could be averted. What a novel concept.

September 06 2010 at 1:44 PM Report abuse +15 rate up rate down Reply
wolfsonnydiane

Isnt the chamber of commerce a union for bussiness ? They advocate for bussiness try and get everything possable to favor bussiness and fight hard to help bussiness become sucessfull Isnt that excatly what a union does

September 06 2010 at 7:45 PM Report abuse -6 rate up rate down Reply
kanakainlv

Thank you for the article. So true! I just read an article bemoaning the fact that more Americans of my age (baby boomers) are "forced" to work longer than they should because they lack the retirement funds to actually retire. Not me, I'm a member of a union that looked out for my needs way before I came along and when I joined, I started on a road to "future" prosperity. I have, thru union negotiated pensions, way more than the $10K that 36% of those that ought to have been able to retire but can't. And I mean, way more! Why? Because I belong to a union that "looked" into the future and saw a need! On this Labor Day, I'm relaxing, tinkering on my vehicles (because I want to) and working (in this bad economy) because I belong to a good, ah! great union....IBEW Local 357.

September 06 2010 at 11:22 AM Report abuse -25 rate up rate down Reply
ms75c

Productivity in 2010 and the future is not about unions. Of course we are talking about the number of employed as well. Despite and communistic origins of the the unions, or the concept of unions, there was a time, prior to our employment laws that they protected employees (workers is a communist term) from explotation. That is not the case today, in fact it has been "not the case" for quite some time. Unions errode the employee work ethic, as most of us remember as the quality of our cars went down leading to the big surge of imports in the early 80's. The cost of goods goes up because the unions have insuinuated big "benefits" that drive up the cost of labor, thus artifically increase the cost of goods. When this happenes American made looses value and costs more than cheap imports. As unions and governemnt regulation drive the cost of labor up, companies also made of individuals, must seek more friendly ground, even if its overseas. In response to the unions shutting down employment opportunities by their own greed, instead of backing off, they, like our President, double down. Unions have contributed to the overall poor performance of our government run public school system. And, when that system is placed into competition or what some of us would call "market discipline", the unions and the politicians that are in their back pockets scream that the conservatives are stealing money from your kid's schools. Well, maybe they want money to go to the school instead of the NEA. Maybe the American people need to discover their own excellence again, an excellence that was in all areas of American life, unique, and diverse, without having to have "diversity" and with equal opportunity and individual liberty. Remember this labor day, we are not workers for the state, we are Americans, and we must take back our jobs from those who under the guise of "representation" are really practicing "confiscation".

September 06 2010 at 10:55 AM Report abuse +27 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ms75c's comment
juddty

You are so right!!! In the 40's thru the 60's unions did help make the workplace better for us but then they began outpricing themselves till they ruined the car companies, steel industries and factories etc. We need something to be made and sold brought back here, until we do this there will not be any job growth or recovery, only union jobs as Obama is all about that. Well guess what Obama? that is only a small percentage of people out of work. What about the 95% of smaller business mainstream American workers, we are the real taxpaying work force. I am 62 and female, I don't qualify for your infrastucture jobs. Yes, Obama I see your transparency you tout, it is all about UNIONs not the everyday taxpayer who needs a job.

September 06 2010 at 11:35 AM Report abuse +23 rate up rate down Reply

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