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Labor Day and the Decline of Organized Labor

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Labor Day and The Decline of Organized Labor

Junious Ricardo Stanton


“In the 2015–16 election cycle, business outspent unions 16-to-1 –$3.4bn to $213m – according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Each year all of the nation’s unions spend about $48m on lobbying in Washington, while corporate America spends more than $2.5bn – more than 50 times as much. This has made many in Congress far more attentive to corporations than to workers, thus the rush to cut corporate taxes, but the failure to increase the minimum wage.” American unions have been decimated. No wonder inequality is booming. Steven Grenhouse


It never ceases to amaze me how people in the United States fail to see what is going on around them, how they fall for the proverbial okey-doke time and time again. The first Monday in September is a national holiday called Labor Day; it was created in 1894 to celebrate the hard fought advances organized labor has made on behalf of American workers and to encourage unions in their struggle for fair wages and improved working conditions. Today Labor Day is a mockery of why it was originally created and an insult to working people.

But no one seems to care or grasp the implications of the fact US union membership is in steep decline. “In 2018, just 10.5% of American workers were members of unions, according to recently released data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s the lowest rate of membership since the bureau began collecting statistics in the early 1980s. Most analyses of pre-1980s union membership suggest it was close to 30% in the 1940s and 1950s. The drop has been particularly steep in the private sector. Just 6.4% of workers in the private sector are unionized, compared with 16.8% in 1983. On the other hand, government employee unions, like those for teachers and postal workers, have remained fairly strong, with a small decline from about 37% of the workforce in 1983 to 34% in 2018.”

American unions are declining in membership, influence and effectiveness. Some politicians still attend parades; give speeches and ramp up their campaigns around this time of year, but for all intents and purposes organized labor is comatose. This is not just because of the shift of economic activity away from industry and manufacturing to a more service oriented economy, hospitality and tourism, restaurants, healthcare etc. Today the US political climate is basically anti-union.

When Ronald Reagan decertified the Air Traffic Controllers Union and the national AFL-CIO leadership stood passively by and allowed him to do it, that sounded the death knell for union power and prestige. Unions were not seen as the heavyweights they once were and from then on both political parties all over the nation started to look elsewhere for campaign financing (aka bribes).

State legislatures around the country rushed to pass “right to work” laws that have effectively curtailed union membership and organizing. Right to work laws do not forbid unions, they provide a way for non-union employees to work and not have to pay union dues while still being covered by the collective bargaining agreement between the unions and management and ownership. Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free?

But Americans still mindlessly celebrate Labor Day even as the 1% oligarchs and their bought and paid for politicians dismantle and undermine unions both in the public and private sectors. In recent years busting public worker unions has been a key plank in the Republican agenda. The Koch brothers have greatly influenced the Republican Party with their money and political organizations and one of their tenants is union busting. But the Democrats under Bill Clinton and Al Gore moved the party farther to the right, courted big corporations and pretty much abandoned, except in rhetoric only, their support of organized labor.

So while both major political parties increasingly depend on corporations to fill their campaign coffers and they respond to the lobbying with favorable anti-union legislation, organized labor has literally been kicked to the curb. Clinton began this policy when he was governor of Arkansas and continued it when he was elected President. Under Clinton and his Democratic Party successors the party became Republican lite, especially when it came to working class polices and legislation.

Both political parties have ganged up against unions, both have effectively undermined organized labor and organized labor is in rapid decline; but Americans still celebrate Labor Day.



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