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Remember the Labor of Labor Day

The genesis of the holiday has nothing to do with shopping or barbecues, but it's to celebrate the gains unions won for all workers.

On Monday, politicians are pressing the flesh, people are swimming at the Shore or barbecuing with friends, shoppers are searching for bargains and children are beginning to lament the imminent start of school.

Labor Day has come to signal the unofficial end of summer, but it didn't start off that way.

It's called Labor Day for a reason. The U.S. Department of Labor calls it "a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country."

For labor, it's supposed to be about the contributions that unions have made to society, both in terms of the improvement of general working conditions and in terms of pay and benefits for workers.

These days, there's not a lot to celebrate.

“Union” has become a negative term, akin to liberal. Some politicians portray union members as money-grubbing, selfish, unwilling to sacrifice, responsible for at least some of the country’s economic ills.

In New Jersey, unionized public workers have had to make financial sacrifices, forced to pay more for health and pension benefits that are becoming less generous. The result amounts to a pay cut.

Not long ago, unions were considered untouchable, with tremendous power to sway politicians to give them favorable pay and benefit increases and working conditions.

But that power has been declining with the ranks of union membership. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 16.1 percent of New Jersey's workers were union members last year. That's a full percentage point less than a year earlier and the lowest rate since the bureau started keeping track in 1989.

The ranks of union members in the state peaked in 1991 at 24.3 percent, or 816,000. Including those represented by a union or similar association, but not actually a member, the height of union power in the state was in 1990, when 905,000, or 26.3 percent of all workers, were represented by a union. That number dropped by 260,000 to 641,000 in 2011.

Still, New Jersey's workforce is far more unionized than the rest of the nation, where the average is just 11.8 percent.

And as unions have declined, so have some worker benefits.

Health benefits used to be free, or almost such, and a guaranteed pension was common. Today, workers have to pay sometimes hefty amounts for medical insurance and, in the private sector, anyway, having a 401K with an employer match is now considered a luxury.

The latter is going to prove more problematic over time as few retire with a guaranteed pension and can't survive on Social Security (if it isn't gutted) and measly 401K funds that they either did not invest wisely or that lost value due to no fault of their own—remember the 2008 market crash.

Despite the recent losses, support for unions in New Jersey remains stronger than in many other places. That's fitting, given many believe a one-time secretary of a Paterson machinists union first proposed the idea of Labor Day 140 years ago. New Jersey was among the first states to pass legislation recognizing the holiday. It didn't take long for Congress to designate it, in 1894.

And there is reason to celebrate unions. They were instrumental in winning many of the benefits all workers take for granted today, including the eight-hour work day, five-day work week, paid time off, overtime, health benefits, minimum wage and safer working conditions. Prior to the labor movement, workers—including young children—slaved for 10 and 12 hours a day for little pay, often in unsafe, sweatshop conditions: Remember the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire?

But today, those gains are seen as negatives. Politicians complain that American jobs have been lost to countries like China because labor is much cheaper there. They blame the minimum wage for some of the U.S. job losses. New Jersey's minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour, which adds up to $290 a week or $15,080 a year. Imagine trying to live on that, particularly when having to pay toward health benefits.

New Jersey Democrats tried, and failed, to raise that wage to $8.50 an hour earlier this year. Once fast friends of the unions, the romance has cooled of late. Many voted with Gov. Chris Christie on pension and health benefit give backs last year. Last June, the Assembly passed a bill to raise the minimum wage, but cowed by Christie's promised veto, the Senate didn't act.

Republicans call bills like that "job-killers." But how does having a job help a person if he can't live on what he makes?

An increase in the minimum wage is due. It’s also time to stop demonizing unions and give labor its due for its part in helping all workers lead better lives.

M.A.Dawson September 04, 2012 at 01:28 PM
Who are you calling Mr.?
Josh Dubnick September 07, 2012 at 12:01 AM
Great article Colleen. I have one "bone" to pick however. Neither "Union" nor "Liberal" have become negative terms. Both are portrayed as negative by politicians (and some of their followers) who have decided that they have to "take our country back". Back from whom, I don't know. I, myself am a proud Union member and I am proud to wear the "Liberal" label as well. (don't forget that "liberal" shares the Latin root "liber" with "liberty"). As for Unions outliving their usefulness, nothing could be further from the truth. As Colleen reports, jobs that offer health care and secure retirements are few and far between. Jobs that pay a "living wage" have become scarce as well. New Jersey's web site listing eligibility for SNAP (food stamp) benefits lists a household income limits under various situations. One example is a household of 3 (think single mom with 2 kids) with a gross monthly income limit at $1,984.00 which is equal to an annual salary of $23,808 or $11.45 per hour for full time work. Short of that, we, the taxpayers are subsidizing that family's income by up to $526 per month ($6,312 per year). So, by arguing that the "job creators" should be freed of government regulation, we are basically offering to subsidize the employer's stinginess with taxpayer money. Unions, by guaranteeing fair pay reduce the burden on government. Shop Rite is unionized, Wal Mart is not. Compare food prices at Shop Rite and Wal Mart. The savings goes to management not consumers!
The Watcher September 07, 2012 at 01:03 AM
Back to basics, do you know unions were also responsible for getting doors put on bathroom stalls in some companies. Yes, it seems hard to believe that working conditions in America were once that bad. Wal Mart calls their employees "associates" (so they can skirt regulations), and fights unionization because "associates" would become "employees" and be entitled to certain rights. Remember things made in China do not have the same regulations as products made in America. When was the last time you remember a product (actually) made in America that had to be recalled for lead?
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