To most Americans, Labor Day is a holiday marking the end of summer. Its original intent as a day to honor the social and economic achievements of American workers is secondary, or perhaps not even a thought.
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Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor is credited for having first suggested a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold,” though it was another labor leader of similar sounding name, Matthew Maguire, a secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York, who formally proposed the holiday in 1882. In 1884, the first Monday in September, was selected as the holiday which spread in popularity across the country until Congress officially declared it a national holiday in 1894.
Parades, festivals and picnics “for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families” became the pattern of succeeding Labor Day celebrations, the United States Department of Labor describes. Speeches by prominent men and women were introduced later, as more emphasis was placed upon the economic and civil significance of the holiday.
Most of that has gone away. People would rather go to a lake, park or B&B than be bothered by stuffy ceremonies that have little to do with them. Today, less than 12 percent of Americans are members of a labor union. In comparison, nearly 28 percent of Canadians are union members. So, nearly 90 percent of Americans have little to no connection to or identification with organized labor.
Since Labor Day was first proposed in the 1880s, how people perceive the purpose of the holiday has changed, but then so has the labor movement. For a hundred years, the labor movement was about establishing fair rules of treatment, pay and benefits for American workers.
However, the hard-fought issues that labor leaders faced in the late 1800s have now all been settled by law. All that labor unions are left to do is negotiate for pay or benefits. Increasingly, Americans see higher pay or benefits for union workers as meaning greater cost or inconvenience to themselves through higher taxes, prices or disruptions to service or convenience caused by work stoppages or strikes, as evidenced by public complaints about a threatened strike by BART workers who are paid much more and receive better benefits than the public at large.
So, although the public continues to appreciate the contributions of teachers, firefighters, police, correctional officers and skilled union workers whatever their trade, it now criticizes organized labor as set in the past, self-serving , bloated, inflexible, receiving inequitable benefits compared to what they receive and as being indifferent to the realities of changing economic times and conditions.
Steve Smith, director of Communications for the California Labor Federation, an umbrella organization representing some 2.1 million workers, admits that while many people see unions as an exclusive club, unions actually fight for causes that benefit everyone, such as raising the minimum wage, improving benefits, worker safety and protecting retirement.
He said, “As union membership has declined, retirement security has almost become non-existent. Companies that provide 401Ks are harder to find and 401K matches have shrunk. Half today’s workers may retire in poverty. Unions are the only ones asking why, at a time when corporations are making record profits, worker benefits are shrinking? And, we’re one of the few who advocate for OSHA (safety and health) enforcement. What we do benefits everyone, not just the union worker.”
Smith says the union message competes in an environment overcome by multi-million dollar campaigns paid for by large corporations (WalMart, McDonalds, BP, Chevron), though youth “have a more favorable opinion about organized labor than any other group. It’s ironic, considering that they have the least representation in labor unions, but they see the value of collective action, standing together. Similarly, Latinos have a favorable opinion. They see that we’re front and center fighting for immigration reform, better pay and benefits for the service sector. At the end of the day, they see unions as on their side and that union members are better off.”
This divide between organized labor and the public has widened since the 1980s when a former union leader (Ronald Reagan) was president and a former construction worker (Tip O’Neill) was speaker of the House of Representatives. Neither ever forgot that they were common men. Back then, Reagan and O’Neill set aside their differences – which were canyon-like – to address the greater good of the nation. They did so with civility, patriotism, humor, self-deprecation and goodwill, while not abandoning their principles.
Tod O’Connor, who worked for O’Neill then and is now producing the documentary “Mr. Speaker,” described O’Neill as “driven to make the American dream affordable and attainable for all.” The documentary is planned to honor Tip O’Neill’s legacy, while being a lesson as to why America should “expect more from its elected officials.” He said Speaker O’Neill voted based on conscience, after considering all sides, opining, “that is what’s missing today.”
O’Connor’s partner, filmmaker Dimitri Logothetis, believes hard-held philosophies by both political parties are dividing government and society, and keeping unions from moving forward. He urged “Unions to reinvent themselves, be more creative and entrepreneurial. They need to continue to stand up for the working man, but also consider the greater goal of economic and social progress, while not forgetting the benefits we’ve all gained. I could not afford to pay for my family’s health care, were it not for the coverage I have through the producer’s union. It’s all due to labor.”
A Kickstarter campaign to fund “Mr. Speaker” is seeking pledges from $10 and up. It can be accessed at http://bit.ly/TipONeillKS, on Facebook and @MrSpeakerDoc. On Labor Day, what better way to commemorate the social and economic achievements of American workers than to honor the contributions of a common working man, like Tip O’Neill?