Labor Day this year was, for many Americans, nothing out of the ordinary. Hurricane Katrina might have made the long weekend more somber, but I suspect it didn’t cancel too many barbecues outside of the disaster zone. Here in Ann Arbor, the Michigan Theatre kindly confused Labor Day with Memorial Day and offered free admission to veterans.

Angela Cesere

For the labor movement, however, this was the first Labor Day since three large unions split from the AFL-CIO this summer in a dispute over lackluster organizing efforts. So far, the divide in organized labor is far less rancorous than it could be — Teamsters and AFL-CIO unionists marched together in the Labor Day parade in Detroit — but only time will tell whether the union shake-up will lead to the organization of more nonunion workers or merely to a further decrease of what little political power labor has left.

Either way, it’s difficult to imagine a return of the days when Detroit’s Labor Day parades drew hundreds of thousands of people.

Sure, unions won the wages that built up America’s middle class and brought us niceties like the 8-hour workday and workplace safety measures. Their political clout might have aided the civil rights movement in the `60s and got social programs like Medicare through Congress. Maybe they were important ­— once.

Today, however, only about 8 percent of private-sector employees are in unions. American labor is now best known for its sad rear-guard efforts to protect the jobs and benefits of its members for a while until the close of their factories and for its continual attempts to stop free trade and globalization, a battle being fought on the losing side of history.

It’s no surprise, then, that it’s hard to get anyone excited about unions. Here at the University, the situation is no different. The visible faces of labor here aren’t those in overseas sweatshops whose efforts to unionize are met with force, but rather our lecturers and graduate student instructors. With the exception of Residential College kids and other predictably liberal contingents, their unions don’t exactly meet with full support from the student body. Wouldn’t paying lecturers more raise our tuition? And why does a grad student need a union, anyway? (Nevermind the GSI I recently had who has gone back to school to earn his doctorate and is supporting his wife and two kids on a GSI’s salary).

Many of us seem quite comfortable working in a society without strong unions. This is the 21st century, after all. This is globalization, and a high school diploma just isn’t going to cut it anymore. These days, you can’t rely on one corporation to provide a job for life and a pension until death, and you’ve got to pick up skills to make yourself marketable. Readers whose econ. lectures are still ringing in their heads can add pious statements about unions leading to inefficiency through inflexible labor markets and greater unemployment due to artificially higher wages.

That’s all well and good — for those who are educated and affluent and competitive in a global economy. For many in the middle and working classes whom unions traditionally benefited, however, a society without strong unions means fewer prospects for a good job.

There is rather solid economic growth in this country — but it’s overwhelmingly benefiting the rich. The New York Times recently commented on the growing income inequality in this country, noting that median household income has been basically stagnant for five years and that all but the richest 5 percent of society saw real wages hold flat or fall in 2004.

But the increasing income distribution gap isn’t a new phenomenon; the rich have been getting richer and the poor getting poorer here for a couple decades now. I’d wager that the decline of unions and their demands that a fair share of corporate profits go to workers has something to do with it.

Unions, if they are to be relevant, need to adapt themselves to today’s economy. This is globalization, and protectionism just isn’t going to cut it anymore. They need to focus on organizing workers in new fields, not on preserving jobs in dying industries. They need to start fighting for better 401(k) plans instead of better pensions.

And they need to accept the reality that globalization is happening, whether they like it or not. Rather than simply opposing every free trade deal, they should start using their political clout to ensure that free trade includes the right to organize unions for those in developing nations and job retraining programs for those who will be harmed at home.

Ultimately, the American labor movement needs to realize that there’s more at stake here than saving jobs in steel or textiles. Unions have a key role to play ensuring a fair society by redistributing wealth from corporations and their wealthy stockholders to workers and their families.

Argue all you want for a laissez-faire capitalist wonderland without unions or redistribution of wealth to the poor; I’d say we saw something of that wonderland in action in New Orleans, as the rich fled and the poor drowned. A free market without strong unions simply doesn’t do a good job supporting a fair society with equal opportunity for rich and poor alike. With any luck, the AFL-CIO split shocks the labor movement back to work ensuring good jobs are available throughout society, and Labor Day doesn’t become a memorial for the unions we once had.

 

Zbrozek can be reached at zbro@umich.edu.

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