The labor movement brought that and much else — child-labor laws, wage and hour laws (think the eight-hour day, the 40-hour week and overtime), occupational safety and health regulations, paid vacations and a decent retirement.
At one time in our history, to get those benefits a worker almost had to have a union job, but, increasingly, they became a matter of federal and state law. The labor movement, as was frequently remarked, had become a victim of its own success.
According to the Census Bureau, 85 percent of full-time workers ages 18 to 64 have jobs with health benefits, and the larger percentage of those covered are union members. But as the country inches ever closer to universal health care, under whatever name it’s called, that becomes one less benefit a worker needs a union for.
As a result, union membership, which stood at 26.7 percent of the workforce in 1973, has fallen to around 13 percent. Among private employers, union membership has become increasingly rare, which surely is reflective of the concurrent and unfortunate decline in the country’s manufacturing base.
The exception is public employees, where union membership remained strong and the strongest unions in the country may well be those representing police and firefighters and the largest those representing teachers. They remain a strong bloc of voters in many places and with the help of compliant elected officials are able to leverage their interests ahead of the taxpayers’ in many instances.
This Labor Day is finding that those public-worker unions are under a sustained assault by the Republican Party, which has taken notice of the resentment felt by many taxpayers tired of funding lavish pension and other benefits on public employees while they themselves will have to rely on under-funded 401(k) plans and a bankrupt Social Security system for their own retirements.
Taking note of the states that have largely stripped government unions of their collective bargaining rights, the GOP platform said, “We salute the Republican governors and state legislators who have saved their states from fiscal disaster by reforming their laws governing public employee unions.” And it urged the states to further weaken the unions by refusing to collect dues by payroll deductions on their behalf.
Indeed, that seems to the trend, and it is one we hope continues. On this Labor Day 2012, it is appropriate to honor and enhance the prospects for all who labor, not just some of them. A holiday for all labor, not just organized labor.