Whatever Happened to the Labor in Labor Day?

It’s the first Monday in September, and for decades the date was marked by parades celebrating the contribution of working men and women to the American and Canadian societies.  Today, it’s just another holiday. In Canada and the northern states it’s a chance to enjoy the outdoors, eat a few hot dogs, sip a few beers and play a few rowdy games before Old Man Winter closes the windows and turns on the furnaces.

Today I was hard pressed to find anything on the Internet that celebrates Labor. Working men and women, those who still have jobs, are held in contempt. And their audacity in organizing to ask for better wages and working conditions is cause for widespread snickers and jeers.

Defenders of trade unions are few indeed today. Conservatives blame them for the flight of American jobs and accuse them of every kind of skulduggery imaginable.

Republican controlled legislatures are attacking organized labor with undisguised ferocity. Even the president and most Democratic politicians seem lukewarm in supporting unions (even though President Obama did attend an AFL-CIO event to celebrate the occasion today).

It would be absurd to claim that organized labor has clean hands. Gangsterism and – to a much smaller extent – Communism infiltrated the movement in the Sixties and Seventies. Meanwhile, the unions got fat and lazy, and instead of making the effort required to organize non-union workers, they started raiding each other. It was easier and more profitable.

I was once a labor reporter. I know.

As disillusionment and high-tech development undermined the labor movement, American politicians sabotaged it. They embarked on a disastrous adventure they call “globalization.” This opened the United States consumer market – the world’s richest – to overseas producers without ensuring adequate compensation for the privilege. As a result, global corporations closed their American factories and moved to low-wage, unregulated countries, where they could make their products far more cheaply and export them to America tariff-free.

As the private-sector jobs fled, unions turned their attention to the public sector, organizing government workers instead. Inevitably, government employees started earning more and enjoying better pensions and other benefits. After all, that’s what unions are for. And, of course, that bred the kind of resentment that has led to such vicious assaults as the recent union busting legislation in Wisconsin and other states.

I wonder whether the unions could have been more like the churches, proselytizing abroad, converting those low-wage workers in foreign countries to their cause. Perhaps they have tried and failed, or perhaps they’re trying and succeeding. I wouldn’t know. The media doesn’t bother to keep us informed of things like that.

The bottom line is that goods once made in America by union workers are now made abroad by non-union workers – often by children- in abysmal conditions for pennies a day.

Meanwhile, America’s labor leaders grumble and whine, complaining of political mistreatment.

So, surveying the scene on Sept. 5, 2011, I don’t see much for labor to celebrate. But there’s much to remember.

It was the union movement that ended child labor in America, and brought us weekends and overtime, as well as paid sick leave, pensions, health benefits and holidays.

Without the unions, this would be just another day at work.

In today’s America, where to be rich is glorious and it’s not how you play the game but how much you end up with, organized labor remains a force for fairness and justice. However tarnished its image, the union movement is owed a debt of gratitude. It deserves better than this.