Monday, September 03, 2012

Reflections on Labor Day

Labor Day as a national holiday has been around for a bit more than 100 years.   And indeed, although it is designed to celebrate the contributions of American workers, it was first proposed by a member of the Central Labor Union - which was a relatively Marxist predecessor of the AFL-CIO.  Organized labor will tell you that unions helped to usher in the middle class.  And they present some interesting statistics.   The middle class grew when big labor (in the private sector) was large. Today, private sector unionized workers are a bit south of 7% of the workforce - a bit more than a third of the public sector is unionized.  (Which makes the total unionized workforce about 12.4%.)   More importantly the respect for unions has diminished significantly in the last few decades.  

The claims made by some on the left is that a middle class was created by unions.  Indeed, as the wages of industrial companies advanced average hourly wages increased.   But making the strict correlation between union membership and the middle class is speculative at best.   Unions helped to bring together a lot of the immigrants that came to this country in the second wave of immigration.  If you want to read a stylized version of the immigrant story read McTeague by Frank Norris.   Unions also engaged in organizing the powerless.   If you want to read about the trials of the powerless and their role in being organized try The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.   Unfortunately, neither is what one might call literature.   Both are unrelenting, one sided depictions of the plight of working people.  

As I was growing up in the LA area and playing a lot of folk and bluegrass, I learned a lot about the labor movement.   I met one old time IWW worker, who hung out in a guitar shop in Long Beach that I used to frequent called McCabes.  That got me to reading a lot about labor related causes and listening to songs from the labor movement.   Some were just crap - but many were compelling - born out of an incident related to a particular situation.  One of my favorites is called the Coal Creek March - which is related to the troubles in Coal Creek Tennessee - Pete Steele recorded the most famous version of the tune but here is a good rendition of it.  

I had two short engagements in union jobs.   In both cases I was exploited.   In both, I actually lowered my hourly wage by joining the union and paying the representation fee.   Unions rewarded regular members and I was just a temporary - in one case for the summer and in the other as an occasional worker.   (Hotel and Restaurant Employees and American Federation of Musicians)  In the AFM relationship our bluegrass band was required in addition to paying the representation fee, to hire a "drumstick man" who job was to pick up our drumsticks when they were dropped (yes bluegrass bands don't use drums).  His real job was to sit around and drink out of a paper sack and collect a fifth of our scale for the evening.

The extension of the industrial model of organizing into the public sector, has been destructive.  I've written before about the differences between public and private unions - the assumptions are different and in the case of public unions they have the ability to pick who they will negotiate with - establishing an unbalanced table.  The outrageous deficits in many cities and other public entities are a direct result of the growth of unions for public employees.  That is beginning to change.

The decline in the private sector came about not because of any special efforts by "evil" employers but because of two factors - a shift in how jobs are created (fewer large scale industrial jobs) and a general understanding by many workers that unions were not an aid in getting or keeping work.   It is also likely that the way union leaders have performed (both in terms of corruption and a relatively lavish lifestyle) turned younger workers off.   I believe a third factor has been the dogmatic ties of unions to one party.   That is especially true for public sector unions.  The rank and file is often at odds with what the union leaders are pursuing politically.

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