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DAVIDSON: The true meaning of Labor Day

• Sep 1, 2017 at 12:00 PM

What are we celebrating on Labor Day? Are we doing justice to history by having picnics and barbecues? As we enjoy our paid time off (or work a shift while paid time-and-a-half), would we notice the irony when so many of our fellow Americans work for substandard wages, juggling multiple minimum wage jobs, no sick days or paid vacation, unable to make ends meet?

Labor, big “L”, should be celebrated on this day. There was a time in our nation’s history when the masses were seen as expendable and replaceable parts in the machine of industry and innovation. That past is being replayed today with such misguided measures as so-called right-to-work laws and the push to eliminate living wages in Michigan.

The billionaires of the 21st century are repeating the exploitations of the early 20th century. These modern-day CEOs of multinational corporations and Wall Street speculators are eroding hard-fought protections won by workers after the Great Depression, the protections that created the thriving middle-class families who fueled the unparalleled equitable growth of the mid-20th century.

The foundation of this rising-of-all-boats economy was the creation and expansion of organized labor unions formed on the premise that workers everywhere — factories, schools, construction sites, hospitals, professional offices, restaurants, energy plants, police and fire departments — deserve the right to collectively bargain for working conditions that don't just ensure fair wages and benefits so they can better care for their families. The fact is collective bargaining also benefits the rest of us and helps build more secure communities.

Nurses in unions often insist on safe patient-to-staff ratios in their contracts at a time when many facilities such as nursing homes are trying to stretch staff thin. Teachers negotiate appropriate student/teacher ratios so children get adequate one-on-one attention even as budget cuts by Lansing and Washington politicians threaten to make classrooms more crowded. Union workers who build our bridges and buildings negotiate with construction companies that worksite employees have graduated from rigorous, certified apprenticeship programs that emphasize both high skill and safety, and even insist on regular drug testing for their own union members. Union firefighters negotiate minimum manning standards so they can respond to emergencies quickly and effectively.

My own middle-class upbringing was rooted in the labor movement. My paternal grandfather, the son of Italian immigrants, raised his family as a UAW member. Without a college degree, he learned valuable skills through an apprenticeship to earn a respectable wage for a hard day's work. His pension and medical benefits meant my dearly departed grandmother could live and die with dignity long after his death.

This was the society that rose from the ashes of 1929, the year of the Great Depression. The New Deal that President Franklin Roosevelt struck with our grandparents and great-grandparents made this promise: Work hard and play fair, and your country will not let you down.

For 50 years that oath remained intact. The oath between and among us created the Greatest Generation. It is the way the workers of that era were treated that created such greatness. The respect inherent in that agreement between government, industry and workers was instrumental in the shared prosperity of the time.

The lessons of the crash of the economy, and the subsequent rise of the great middle-class of the 20th century has been lost on today's wealthy and powerful. The ruling class of the 1930s-1970s climbed the ladder of success with one hand on the rung above and the other reaching back for the ones below. The fact that this was not an altruistic hand is irrelevant. Our government supported a system where workers were allowed — and sometimes encouraged — to organize for their own betterment.

Between the Great Depression and the post-World War II era, one in three U.S. workers belonged in a union. Wages rose for them, and for non-union workers. Unions were a check against income inequality. Today, union membership is at 11 percent and declining steadily.

Between 1980 and the 2010s, incomes of the top earners were nearly 200 times more than the bottom 90 percent. Yet wages have stagnated for 70 percent of all male workers since 2007. The wage inequality gap continues to grow for all female workers. For men and women without college degrees, or two out of every three Michiganders, wages have been declining since 2007. Wages may be inching up for college graduates, yet college costs are skyrocketing, leaving too many young people behind.

This accumulation of staggering wealth is really a proxy for the accumulation of power.

Those in power want to exclusively breathe that rarefied air. They resent any constraints on their ability to greedily generate unprecedented amounts of wealth. They resent protections for workers and they strive to unravel the regulatory threads that once formed the fabric of our American social contract. They peddled the Reaganite rubbish that government is the problem — government and its partner, organized labor.

By the 2010s, the right-wing agendas of the Koch brothers and West Michigan's own DeVos family had infiltrated the agendas of the ruling American oligarchy. Labor was target No. 1. We should all remember how Dick DeVos flew in his wealthiest friends in 2012 to strong arm the Michigan legislature to push right-to-work, a union-busting scheme that prevents union contracts from requiring workers to pay dues for representation, thus facilitating its ultimate demise.

Today, Michigan is one of 28 states with these anti-worker laws. The trend is not encouraging as special interest anti-union groups and their propaganda machine, such as the Midland-based Mackinac Center, continue their dishonest campaign against hardworking Americans.

Those in power have already eroded workers' ability to collectively negotiate for better wages, working conditions and safe workplaces. They're now plotting to take away workers' healthcare, making them too sick and too afraid to challenge the status quo power structure. They're organizing efforts to eliminate fair living wages for workers who do many of our hardest, most important jobs, like building safe roads and bridges or keeping our communities safe.

So on this day let us remember with respect the Labor movement of the last century. Let us all work together to fight the injustice of income inequality. Let us join in brotherhood and sisterhood with those still fighting for the rights of workers, and demand those who represent us work for all of us and not just those at the top of the ladder.

— By Rob Davidson, Tribune community columnist

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