(Un) Happy Labor Day

A long time ago, labor unions were a powerful force in American society and newspapers had reporters covering the labor beat.

Then unions faded and newspapers replaced their “labor” reporters with “workplace” reporters. Still, there was one day a year when organized labor could count on getting a front page story and it was…. (you guessed it) this weekend, Labor Day.

Then newspapers themselves started to disintegrate and most of them don’t even have a workplace beat anymore, let alone a labor beat.

If I’m sounding mournful, it’s partly because of a story this week by the excellent dying-breed New York Times *labor* reporter Steven Greenhouse about the sorry state of affairs regarding labor and workers’ rights in our nation’s capital.

Greenhouse reported that the chair of the National Labor Relations Board had stepped down at the end of her term under severe fire from right-wing and corporate critics. Conservative newsletters had attacked the board as “Marxism on the march” and “socialist goons.” Michelle Bachmann promised to shut down the labor agency entirely if elected.

And the reason for their ire?

Among other things…

Critics were also quick to denounce an action that the board took last Thursday: for the first time, it ordered all private sector employers to post notices about their employees’ rights to unionize and bargain collectively.

Posting notices! Oh my God, can you imagine anything worse? Once they force employers to start posting notices, it’s only a matter of hours until we are all in the Siberian gulag fighting over moldy potato peelings.

Anyone who has ever worked anywhere knows how many pieces of paper employers already have to post, and how little difference it makes to anyone except possibly the shops that do the photocopying. This is yet another example of the right’s outstanding ability to turn the tiniest little tilt toward the left, even the tiniest tilt toward the rational center, into an apocalyptic crusade.

This happens on every kind of issue, from health care to air pollution. But let’s just focus on labor for now since, well, it is Labor Day weekend.

There are some dynamic unions out there with dedicated activists and creative tactics. When I covered the *workplace* beat at the Chronicle, I loved writing about Mike Casey and Local 2, the hotel and restaurant employees union in San Francisco.

But the overall picture is pretty depressing. American unions are increasingly limited to health care and government, and even there they are facing growing attacks from small-government Tea Party types. No one has figured out how to maintain strong industrial unions in an era when industry has fled overseas. Union members are a smaller percentage of our population than ever. There’s still too much infighting and narrow thinking within the labor movement itself.

Even many liberals don’t care much about labor anymore —  the trendy lefty issues of the decade are gay marriage, overseas wars, climate change, local food. Think about it: When was the last time you talked about labor organizing with someone? And when was the last time you talked about heirloom tomatoes or free-range chicken?

So why does it matter? Do we really need unions anymore? Aren’t we all “free agents” these days, each cultivating our own “brand of me”, cutting great deals for ourselves as we savvily negotiate our way through the post-industrial economy ?

In a word: No.

That works for some people — if you’re a skilled software engineer or even, say, a former-newspaper-reporter-turned-freelance-writer with Harvard and Berkeley degrees. But most of the time, such negotiations end up pretty lopsided, one little person against a corporation with a legal department larger than most Fourth of July family picnics.

This global economy is a rough sea. Some people can float with their own personal inner tube. But for most of us, it helps to be able to band together and build a boat. It’s the difference between passively reacting to the job market, and trying to shape that market — between being a victim and an actor.

Everything in our current culture militates against unions — not just how jobs have moved overseas, but the focus on individualism and the blind worship of the “free market” here at home. So when government attempts some modest moves towards helping people exercise their right to unionize, I see it as a good and timely thing.

And then the right shoots it down.

Both the potentially significant moves — like an effort by the NLRB to speed up the process of union elections — and the insignificant ones like that dreaded Communist beachhead of posting notices.

I mentioned above that I was feeling mournful. And now, a dozen paragraphs later, that old quote from Joe Hill* pops into my mind: Don’t mourn — organize.

Happy Labor Day.

——————————

* I haven’t read it, but have heard good things from my former Chron colleague Carl Hall about The Man Who Never Died, the just-released biography of Joe Hill that presents new evidence that Hill was innocent of the murder for which he was executed.

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3 Responses to “(Un) Happy Labor Day”

  1. Nicholas Says:

    All too true. Yet I’m excited by the gains by Unite Here!

  2. leslie laurien Says:

    Excellent piece, neib. And I really like hearing your voice in this.
    Right on.

  3. Janice Dean Says:

    This daughter of Detroit who is currently employed by a state university in a “right to work” state says AMEN.

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