Voice of Labor



Most people think of Labor Day as an excuse for a day off, a family barbecue, and a good white sale at the local Macy’s. But many of us have forgotten that the holiday was created by the labor union movement in the United States and is meant to be a celebration of the so-called blue collar working man (and woman).

Today unions are under attack. Half of the states in the U.S. have passed Right to Work laws, which limit the influence of labor unions. These laws bar unions from requiring employees to pay a “fair share” fee to cover the expenses of negotiating contracts and protecting workers under those contracts. Yet the law requires that non-union workers reap the rewards of union-negotiated working conditions.

A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute reveals that wages in Right to Work states are 3.1% lower than in non-RTW states. Studies have also found a decrease in employee benefits such as health insurance and pensions. This seems logical to me. By reducing workers’ incentives to pay union dues, unions’ ability to get raises and benefits for their workers is diminished.

Union membership has decreased in the past decade as unions and their members have been demonized as greedy, unprincipled, and lazy. This is particularly true in the public sector, where taxpayers have become convinced that teachers and other public employees have it made in the shade while they, the taxpayers, pay for outlandish perks. Yet in many states, after adjusting for inflation, teacher salaries have actually decreased in recent years.

Have unions and their members sometimes been guilty of abuses? No doubt. But so have many corporations. Need I mention anything more than the name Enron?

Unions came into being because employers took unfair advantage of their workers, seeking to maximize profits and minimize expenses. Grueling work in unsafe conditions, child labor, and low wages were often the norm until workers gained the ability to organize and demand something better for themselves and their families.

It’s interesting to me that so many middle class and lower middle class people are vehemently anti-union. Unions were one of the factors that allowed the middle class to flourish in the first place. Today we see greater and greater income inequality, yet people are all for reducing or abolishing organized labor, the historical champion of the underdog.

Today on Labor Day, it would behoove us to reflect on what the labor movement has meant for ordinary Americans in the past. Let’s not be so eager to discard unions.


4 thoughts on “Voice of Labor

  1. Carolyn Rudolf

    Mary, you made some very good points. I just read an article in the Times about this very subject. In addition to the lower wages and benefits issues, this article pointed out that in Right to Work states, people are generally less educated (cause or effect, I wonder). They also have higher infant mortality rates, another indicator of the overall health of a population.
    Many states became Right to Work in the 40’s and 50’s, but this trend toward Right to Work legislation in the Midwest is largely a recent phenomenon. I find it a disturbing one. Thanks for addressing this issue.


  2. Paul Infanger

    Unions had their purpose in the rise and fall of the American worker. The good is that they raised our middle class in the mid-20th century. The bad is that they killed American productivity such that the middle class they created is now gone. While at ComEd the union was very strong. Engineers were fired for making more than 25 pages of copies (no kidding). Union workers got “non productive overtime” where when we had to bring in skilled workers from Westinghouse or other firms to do work the Union couldn’t do, the union got an equal amount of hours to come into work and play cards or whatever and get overtime pay. Yes, unions had their purpose to raise workers from grueling hard labor to a respectable existence. But they went too far and are now the cause of so many plant closures and job loss.


    • Paul, I appreciate your perspective from the manufacturing area, and I realize that unions can sometimes go overboard in their demands. I also realize that we have lost a lot of manufacturing jobs to overseas plants where companies can pay workers less and provide less ideal working conditions. But I don’t think the answer is to do away with unions. Companies need to be held accountable for how they treat their employees. The erosion of the middle class in recent years is proof that these companies will not do so on their own.


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