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Making Labor Day Mean Something Again [OPINION]

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The three day weekend may function as the unofficial end of summer or as an excuse for retailers big and small to have sales spectaculars, but Labor Day was meant to be more.

We aren’t exactly living in the dark days of the early industrial revolution, but organized labor has certainly fallen on hard times. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported earlier this year that the percentage of wage and salary workers who are members of a labor union fell to 11.3% in 2012. That is down almost 9% from 1983.

A small part of that decline is actually due to the success of labor unions. Many of most egregious practices of employers have been curbed either through direct industrial action or through government regulations lobbied for by unions, which has had the effect of reducing the perceived need to form or join a union.

Mostly though, union membership is down because the enemies of organized labor have never been stronger.

Management has exploited advances in transportation and communication to offshore work to where wages are a pittance. This has decimated domestic employment in manufacturing which was traditionally a stronghold for unions. What remains of the manufacturing sector in the US is much more automated and requires far fewer workers than factories of days past.

So-called “right to work” laws in certain states have eliminated unions’ ability to keep a closed shop. This means that employees get to enjoy the benefits of the union negotiated contract without having to pay dues, resulting in weak, underfunded unions if they manage to survive at all.

When it comes time to open up a new factory, you can guess which states are most attractive to corporate managers making locational decisions.

More and more of the jobs being filled in our economy are in the service sector. Outside of government work, most of those jobs are rarely unionized. Retail is particularly bad in that regard and the percentage of jobs made up by this sector keeps growing.

The trend toward lower union membership is alarming. Strong, active unions were the protectors of the working class, and in the past helped build pathways to the middle class for Americans without the benefit of a university degree.

Weaker unions are not only less likely to negotiate good contracts, but also unable to mobilize their constituency at election time. As go the unions, so goes the prospects for the working class of today and tomorrow.

Most of the low paying jobs in our economy have the notoriety of also being the ones with the worst working conditions. Employees are being forced into schedules that change from day to day and week to week, making simple things like daycare difficult to arrange, let alone having any other commitments outside of work or a second job.
Some employers are now insisting that workers be paid with high fee debit cards that save corporate a few pennies, but cost the user a significant portion of their wages.

Management is well aware that despite paying at or near minimum wage, there are enough people out there desperate for work that any employee who complains can be easily replaced.

These are problems that workers can only address collectively.

There has been some reason for optimism lately, however. Recent, high-profile actions by fast food and Wal-mart employees demanding, amongst other things, a living wage are a sign that a tipping point is being reached. If these workers can be successfully unionized they can be a force at the negotiating table and the ballot box, and our politics and economy would be better for it.

Labor Day was meant to be a celebration of the worker and a call to action to collectively keep employers honest. It is high time that we make the day mean something worthwhile again.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Gossom and do not reflect Results Radio, Townsquare Media, its sponsors or subsidiaries.

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