Reflections on the Meaning of Labor Day

September 5, 2011
Guest Post

by Marion G. Crain, the Wiley B. Rutledge Professor of Law and Director, Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Work & Social Capital, at the Washington University School of Law


Labor Day celebrates the historical contributions of the American labor movement to the lives of millions of working people. Today, however,unions are under siege. In the public sector, governors seeking to slash budgets are deauthorizing state labor laws that govern the organizing and bargaining rights of state employees. In the private sector, both the federal legislation that supports union action and the administrative body that enforces the law (the National Labor Relations Act and the National Labor Relations Board, respectively) are under attack. Union density is on a dramatic downswing. Are unions passé?

Unions formed to challenge the dramatic wealth inequality between business owners and workers that characterized the nineteenth century social condition.  Most working families -- children, as well as adults -- labored under oppressive and dangerous conditions: seven days and sixty-plus hours per week, for pennies an hour, in workplaces with overtly dangerous conditions (the open flames in coal mines, for example, led to frequent explosions that maimed and killed many miners). Unions fought to change these conditions: to raise wages, to reduce hours, to enhance worker safety on the job. As they matured, unions partnered with the civil rights movement to battle entrenched racial segregation and discrimination in employment. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, a staunch union advocate, espoused a vision of racial equality that was premised on a call for economic justice. Indeed, King’s assassination occurred while he was in Memphis supporting a sanitation workers’ strike.

Today, an array of statutes protects the vast majority of workers against such abuses.  Unions played a key role in obtaining such protections, and in defending them against political challengers. They raised workers’ expectations and encouraged them to demand to be treated with dignity, lobbied for legislation that would improve the standard of living for all workers, and litigate on behalf of workers for the most worker friendly interpretations of the law. The Fair Labor Standards Act (establishing a minimum wage and the right to overtime pay for hours worked in excess of 40 per week), the Occupational Safety and Health Act (establishing standards for safe workplaces), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, sex, national origin and religion), and the Family and Medical Leave Act (offering job protection for unpaid medical and family-care-related leave) are among the many legislative achievements that would not exist without the advocacy of labor unions. 

As valuable as it may be, the individual rights model outlined above leaves economic issues like living wages, job security, health insurance and pension benefits to individual negotiation. But individual workers are relatively powerless to negotiate with corporate employers who hold the purse-strings to desperately needed jobs, and many workers willingly sacrifice anything to get and keep a job. Unions, however, are able to capitalize on the collective strength of the group to negotiate collective bargaining agreements that guarantee job security and establishbenefit packages that include health insurance, pension coverage, vacation pay, and paid family leave. Once obtained, these important benefits are often extended across entire industries or sectors by employers competing to attract the best workers. Further, most workers lack the knowledge of their legal rights and the resources to challenge violations of rights guaranteed in individual rights statutes. Unions thus play an important role as watchdogs for workers’ rights, and are the most effective vehicle for extending those rights beyond the minimum floor prescribed by employment legislation.

Thus, labor unions are widely credited with creating and sustaining a strong middle class in America. Autoworkers, steelworkers, coalminers, nurses, teachers, and many others enjoy a middle-class standard of living because of their collectively-bargained wage and benefit packages. 

Finally, labor unions afford workers a direct voice in how their day-to-day work lives are structured. Workplace democracy is critical to maintaining our political democracy. As Senator Robert F. Wagner, architect of the National Labor Relations Act explained,

For the masses of men and women the expression of the democratic impulse must be within the industries they serve -- it must fall within their daily work. That is why the struggle for a voice in industry, through the processes of collective bargaining, is at the heart of the struggle for the preservation of political as well as economic democracy in America.  Let men become the servile pawns of their masters in the factories of the land and there will be destroyed the bone and sinew of resistance to political dictatorship. [Robert F. Wagner, The Ideal Industrial State—As Wagner Sees It, N.Y. Times, May 9, 1937, at 23].

Labor unions are workers’ voice in the legislatures, offering the only political institution that seeks to counterbalance the growing political and economic influence of corporations.

Unions today continue to struggle against wealth and income inequality. Wage inequality -- the gap between the highest income and lowest income workers within demographic groups, controlling for education and other factors -- has not been higher since the Great Depression. New research suggests that increases in wage inequality are closely linked to the decline in union membership and power: [Sociologists Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld found that the dramatic rise in wage inequality between 1973 and 2007 (40 percent for men, 50 percent for women) is strongly correlated with the decline in union membership over the same period.] Clearly, American workers need unions for the vital role they play as an equalizing force in the modern labor market. 

[image via xeeliz]