1 Labor day

We celebrate Labor Day to honor labor unions : their struggles, their achievements, their ongoing importance to those who labor.

Tomorrow Governor Baker will greet President Obama at Logan Airport as the President comes here to address the annual AFL-CIO Labor Day breakfast. It is particularly timely that we say our say in favor of what unions at their best do for workers.

Less workers belong to unions now than formerly, mostly because mass-employment enterprises have given way, in large part, to much smaller businesses. Yet today unions are enjoying some resurgence as once unorganized service businesses have grown to mass size.
Meanwhile, public employment unions remain strong, thanks to the huge growth of public budgets during the years 1942 to 2009, but are now seeing their power challenged.

We honor them all. There is a tendency today to identify unions as a Democratic party thing. Not so. President Teddy Roosevelt said over 100 years ago : “As capital has organized, so Labor must organize.” Barely 25 years later, two Republican members of Congress, Senator George Norris of Nebraska and Congressman Fiorello LaGuardia of New York, sponsored successful passage of the Norris-LaGuadia Anti Injunction Act, Labor’s biggest victory prior to the New Deal 1930s and still a vital cannon of labor rights. It outlawed the use of injunctions, on grounds of disturbing the peace, riot, or restraint of trade, to block worker strikes. There was more to be done, yes; and the presidency of a second, Democratic Roosevelt saw the ceation of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), by which labor union organizing could be monitored and opponents sanctioned, as it exercised power to issue and enforce rulings.

The NLRB still matters a lot. Barely ten days ago it issued its most important ruling in years, holding that employees of a business’s franchisees could be deemed employees of the parent business for purposes of organizing drives and contract bargaining.

We honor unions because more than any other activism, they enable workers to earn higher pay and secure better benefits than they’d likely gain singly.

Some employers understand that workers are their greatest asset and pay accordingly as well as give benefits commensurate. Why businesses do not see workers as an asset I cannot understand. How can you execute if you don’t have workers ? Yet many businesses, especially those whose stock is publicly traded and thereby at the mercy of speculators choose to maximize instant arbitrage profits by whittling worker costs down to the bone. Against such short sighted hurry, labor unions build mighty fortresses.

Today union organizers take the lead in securing living wages for fast food workers, home health aides, airport janitors and many other employees whose wages have not kept up with the cost of normal living. We applaud union struggles on behalf of these hard working people.

Are unions perfect ? Not at all. When industries become obsoleted by technological change, unions often block such changes. Unions in declining businesses choose security over change even though it means losing public support and, just as likely, hastening that industry’s demise. Public employee unions sometimes make the same mistake. The structure of public education is undergoing radical transformation, and teacher unions, for example, are being left behind, as if on an island, as they post one block after another against such change, heedless o its inevitability. Unions aren’t very good at systemic reform.

That said, we honor Labor day and what it means. More often than not, unions put more money in workers’ wallets and thereby boost the general prosperity of our economy — not to overlook the social peace that well paid workers are part of. Let us applaud and be glad that unions have fought the good fight and still do so.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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