Meaning of Labor Day

Published 11:10 am Monday, September 6, 2010

That Labor Day has come to be thought of as Labor Union Day is unfortunate enough, because unions have never and cannot ever represent all laboring people. What makes the focus of Labor Day on unions even more inappropriate and unfortunate is the fact many, arguably most, labor unions represent themselves more than they represent labor. On this day let’s turn our attention and give honor to labor more than labor unions and to affirm those unions that themselves do so.

Raw human nature institutionalized into bureaucracies, as unions have become, shrinks from its constituting purposes and hardens into self-maintenance. Many welfare departments, for instance, function to provide job security and personal benefits for their staff members more than welfare for their clients.

Not a few shop stewards have climbed into local union office to get out of shop work and lounge in the comfort and ease of the local’s office. Some have negotiated disputes with a view toward being respected by management rather than standing up for the rights of their own members. Some have gone the other way by obstinately refusing to make reasonable settlements so as to appear heroes to their membership and, then, losing everything.

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Being an effective union representative has to be one of the work world’s most awkward roles, much requiring balancing competing perspectives. They must find themselves often slipping down one slippery slope or another. To avoid this requires alertness by the labor executives themselves as well as vigilance by rank and file.

An embarrassing recognition by many new union officers is that not infrequently labor demands actually are unreasonable. They need to have the strength and courage to lead members into recognizing this. Too often they will continue to demand what they know is unreasonable or even unfair.

Some union executives have failed to recognize that by accepting their positions, they themselves have become management. Then they begin to think, talk, and act as the managers they have built careers criticizing and opposing.

A very great irony is all the labor disputes that have arisen within the national offices of several major unions. I think of at least one national in which clerical help filed a grievance for poor working conditions, and the union executives refused even to listen until forced by the National Labor Relations Board. Then the union refused to allow the workers to unionize.

Such incidents haven’t been adequately reported, possibly because the general news media have been biased in favor of unions.

Another irony, which has not escaped the attention of many political observers, is that the political goals of most union executives are substantially different from the social values of most union members. The former tend to be politically and economically liberal, while rank and file tend to be culturally and socially conservative.

One of the clearest and most easily demonstrated differences concerns race. Most national unions take a very fine position in regard to equal opportunity and racial equality. At the same time, a great number of union members resist granting opportunity to those outside their own class or group. They have their jobs, made secure by labor contacts, and they aren’t going to let outsiders in. This is not confined to Whites keeping Blacks out, because the reverse is often the case when Blacks have become the majority. Some oppose employment of immigrants even when legal.

My point is not which is morally right, but that it is not ethical for a union to claim it faithfully represents membership when it know it does not. Few union members seem to notice what their union is saying publicly that directly conflicts with their wishes.

For generations it has been supposed that labor is Democrat. What is Democrat is labor unions—not labor. Thousands of union members pay dues used by their unions for Democrat causes and candidates and then, in the sacred privacy of the voting both, vote Republican or Independent. And they don’t seem to notice the disparity.

Not in all industries are labor unions necessary, but they are in many. Necessary unions must serve the best interests of their members and labor generally. What matters to this nation, and it matters very much, is not labor unions but labor.

Labor Day honors labor; it honors labor unions only to the extent they honor labor.