Jim Carr By JIM CARR

September 12, 2023 — It is APEF Retirees Logougust and I am writing this article for the September issue of the Communicator. September brings us to the end of summer and a transition to fall. September is also when we celebrate Labor Day, a day when we should recognize and honor the achievements of organized labor and the benefits unions provide for their members and the hard-fought gains over the years. 

I believe a historical perspective is in order because we need to appreciate the meaning of this important holiday. The question is asked when did Labor Day become a national holiday? In 1894, President Grover Cleveland declared Labor Day a national holiday: “A time for people of this nation to pay tribute to the American worker.” 

When America was founded, most people were either farmers, men of the sea, or involved in related fields. As people moved inland, they became aware of how enormous America really was and it was natural for people to choose other professions, even that of the discerning.  

As the world developed, mining of the many natural resources of our country became a way of life, which helped build the country. As technology was refined, labor took on a new face. The more traditional modes of work remained, but the American thirst for innovation became prominent. Labor became organized — unions found their niche in society — and there was a greater emphasis on the dignity of the working person. Labor Day developed as a way to showcase the backbreaking labor that made America strong, independent, self-sufficient, and a provider for the world. 

On this year’s Labor Day, Americans have much to be grateful for. Even in these challenging times of political, social, and economic division, we enjoy economic freedom because we belong to a union. The prosperity we enjoy in this country is not something that is common in every country throughout the world. Many people have been left behind and a gap in family income continues to widen. The top 5% of the American population takes home a larger share in personal income than they did 40 years ago. At the same time, the share of income going to people in the middle 60% has declined by nearly 10%. This decline is even sharper for those in the bottom 20%. This trend is one reason for America to respect the strong, active, endemic, democratic labor movement. 

Workers, particularly members of organized labor, have given much to America over the last century. It is through their efforts that the great American middle-class was born. Yet American unions never capitalized on the concept of “class” warfare that found such fertile ground in the rest of the industrialized world. Union leaders instead saw their organization as part of the American experience of democracy and urged their membership to seek social justice for all instead of a class struggle.  

Many of the values embedded in the labor movement’s search for social justice have a firm foundation in today’s union values, which seek public policy that promotes strong families and family values, expands a stable middle-class, creates decent jobs, and reduces the level of poverty and need in our society. Organized labor promotes the dignity of work. 

Early Labor Day parades were made up of the common folk who went to work, took pride in what they did, were paid a fair wage, and reminded the country of her pride in her citizens. Today, there is a tendency to forget about these basic qualities of our everyday lives. If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything it is that workers are “essential.” Doctors, nurses, teachers, police, firefighters, grocery store workers, and all the dedicated public servants who work for the good of the public are essential.  

Today much of that work is undervalued and under-appreciated. A simple history lesson shows why economist Paul Krugman called the years 1929 to 1947 the birth of the middle class. They were also, roughly speaking, the birth of the modern labor movement. The number of U.S. workers belonging to labor unions increased from 3.6 to 15.4 million during those years. The postwar prosperity years of 1947 to 1973 saw further growth in union membership. 

The combination of anti-union policies and messaging, and an increasingly pro-business atmosphere, coupled with the Labor Department and activist judges in bankruptcy courts who can’t wait to take apart bargaining agreements, has taken its toll. Today union membership is down to around 12% of the workforce. 

As surely as growth in union participation led to a strong middle class, falling participation has weakened it. History shows that unorganized workers, left at the mercy of giant unregulated corporations, leads to an unstable economy of rich and poor. Unions balance power that leads us to where we need to be for a growing, middle-class economy. Government policies that favor unions and the middle class are necessary to keep our economy both fair and growing. 

What’s going to save the ordinary American, trapped between a government buried in corporate cash, and a market system that even its greatest supporters are starting to doubt?  

In one word: power. Power is how to change things and make things happen. There are two forms and sources of power. The first is lots of organized money (corporate PACs). That is the kind of power the financial elites have used to bring the rest of us to our knees. The other source and form of power is lots of people: organized, mobilized, united, and taking action. That’s why we still need a strong union movement and that’s why labor was organized in the first place.  

Because Together We Are Stronger! Happy Labor Day 2023! 


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