Congress created Labor Day in 1894. Workers 122 years ago were not always held in high regard by all employers; in fact employers seemed to be unaware of and/or unconcerned about workers welfare all too often. Workplace conditions were not always safe; in fact, many industries’ workplace conditions were decidedly unsafe. Employees still had a long period of struggle for improvements in conditions and compensation. Conditions today are controlled by laws passed by Congress often at the urging of union leaders and their membership over the years.
Employers have become more attuned to the needs of their workforce over time. Whether that is the result solely of organized labor’s efforts is debatable, but there seems little question that without organized labor this struggle would have gone on longer. The drive for ‘economy’ in manufacturing environments is still strong enough in some cases that organized labor serves a purpose that might otherwise remain unserved at least for longer periods of time. Automation has eliminated or greatly mitigated some of the more dangerous jobs. Maybe that wouldn’t have occurred as quickly had organized labor not been there to raise the issues, although the quest to save money would’ve driven automation, albeit maybe more slowly.
The role of organized labor has changed over time. There is a place for organized labor but it is not as well-defined today as it was yesterday given our ability to look back at all that has changed for the better in the workplaces of today.
Labor unions have, in many cases, morphed from their original forms into significantly more politically-driven forms. Many of us tend to equate national labor unions today with the Democratic Party in terms of political philosophy even though today’s worker-members aren’t always of the same persuasion as are the leaders of their unions. Union dues may be spent to empower one party while members would like to be apolitical or supportive of the other major party. Leaders seem seldom to be ‘unelected’ by members for whatever reason. In these cases, the dues paid are used to help elect people that the individual might not be supportive of, but his or her decision has been made by the leadership. This is still true, from all outward appearance, all too often at the national political level.
Local politics tends to be less affected by organized labor nationally except in largely labor-dominated cities or states. Public safety employees tend to be represented by a union, but those unions are largely concerned with pure compensation and safety themes today given the strides made to make this environment as safe as is possible. Everyone in that world understands that they may not return home at the end of each shift and still pursue their calling because it is a part of them that cannot be ignored. Party politics seldom enter into those personal-level decisions.
We do, I believe, tend to see a more apolitical environment in local public safety unions’and quite likely in all local community unions.There is less, probably significantly less, state and national dominance of these union entities. They are what unions were originally: concerned with the issues they face in their daily lives in their local workplace.
Labor Day has lost quite a bit of its meaning for many citizens. We have lost track of many of the reasons why there are labor unions, of what drove those decisions and of the needs which have largely been satisfied. Devout believers in the labor movement obviously would argue vehemently with me. I suspect there are cataracts obscuring the vision of some today who have accepted the preaching of the national leaders, and who are content with permitting someone else to make their decisions for them, or to even question the rationale.
All this is what makes our democratic (small ‘d’) form of government among the best man has ever conceived.
Happy Labor Day 2016!