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Omdahl: Unions Replaced in Battle for Benefits

By Staff | Aug 28, 2015

Labor Day isn’t that anymore.

Labor Day is a shopping excursion to the mall. Labor Day is an outing in the country. Labor Day is closing the summer place. Labor Day is a three-day weekend in the Mall of America, Medora, the Black Hills or Canada. For sure, Labor Day isn’t Labor Day.

So even though Labor Day was promoted by labor unions to honor the nation’s workers, it has become a day for everything but. Veterans will note that Memorial Day has suffered the same fate, but not to the same degree.

Originally, Labor Day was created to recognize organized workers in a booming industrial economy. Over half of the states had already designated Labor Day by the time the federal government created the holiday in 1894

The contributions of organized workers have been long forgotten, even by the workers themselves.

Unions were major influences in reducing the work day from 12 to eight hours; they negotiated safer working conditions; they fought to eliminate child labor; they negotiated better wages and fringe benefits.

As each success was chalked up, support for unions diminished. With jobs and working conditions more humane, workers became complacent and took their benefits for granted. Fifty years ago, 35 percent of workers were unionized; today that is 10 percent. (N.D. has five percent.)

There were other factors besides complacency that contributed to the decline in union membership. Employees of giant box stores were too scattered to organize; white collar workers regarded themselves as professionals beyond labor unions; jobs went to overseas manufacturers; reports of union corruption and bullying, and a relentless campaign by management to kill or weaken unions.

While the federal government has fostered unions, state legislators have been less sympathetic, depending on the demographic makeup of each state. The Midwest, Mountain and Southern states have been hostile while the Northeastern and West Coast states have been more favorable.

Farmers identify themselves as management when it comes to labor, blaming unions for the rising cost of farm machinery. (Their attitude manifested itself two years ago in the Red River Valley when farmer-owned Crystal Sugar decided to break the union instead of sharing sugar beet prosperity with refinery employees.)

The decline in labor unions has created a bargaining vacuum. Since unions are no longer able to negotiate for the large majority of workers in the American economy, government and the taxpayers have had to represent the interests of the unorganized workers.

When it comes to wages, standard government minimum wage laws have been enacted to replace union negotiations. This is less than desirable because one size minimum wage does not fit all markets or job classifications.

Without unions to fight for a share of the benefits of a prosperous economy, the gap between the rich and the working class has widened dramatically in the last 10 years.

And because wages have not been negotiated to meet basic needs, the taxpayers have had to provide low income workers with food stamps, public housing, child care, medical assistance and a whole slew of other welfare programs.

Charitable and religious organizations also have helped bail out the low income folks with thrift stores, food pantries, feeding programs and homeless shelters.

Because there are no unions to negotiate with employers for health insurance, pension systems or other fringe benefits, to maintain a humane society the government has had to become more active in these areas.

The day of private sector collective bargaining is over. Hereafter, the political policymakers will be deciding how prosperity will be divided between the “haves” and the “have-nots” through taxation, regulations and safety nets.

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