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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.