Published on Tuesday, September 2, 2003 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Why We Need Strong Unions
by Harley Sorensen
When I was a kid, Labor Day was the only holiday that always fell on a Monday. Thanksgiving was on a Thursday, and all the rest fell on whatever day the calendar dictated: Washington's Birthday on Feb. 22, for instance, and Lincoln's on Feb. 12.
Labor Day, back in those days, signaled the end of summer, the last day of the State Fair (which was, and still is, a big deal in Minnesota) and the beginning of school on Tuesday. I doubt if that's changed much.
For many, back then, it was a day for big picnics sponsored by labor unions in city parks. I can't recall this for sure, but I think we also had a few Labor Day parades back then. They had to be boring.
There were no Labor Day sales. Stores were closed, as they were on all holidays. People in retail got to enjoy holidays, too. And most stores were closed on Sundays.
Labor Day is without a doubt a liberal holiday, perhaps the only liberal holiday ever. If working people had to depend on conservatives for days off work, there'd be no such days. Not even Sundays.
I've had my share of labor jobs over the years. The worst was picking strawberries. I lasted half a day. Now, a couple generations later, I still tip my hat to field workers whenever I see them at work.
If anyone deserves respect, it's them.
As a kid, I delivered newspapers for three years. Routes 212, 210 and 226. You never forget stuff like that. It was a seven-day-a-week job, but the hardest part was collecting. Very often the customers weren't home when I knocked on their doors. If they were home, they often didn't have the 40 cents or $1 or $1.40 they owed me. "Come back on Friday," they'd say. I still have nightmares about collecting.
My first full-time job was as a page in the public library. I got paid $107 per month. That was lousy even then.
Later, I unloaded boxcars at Montgomery Ward, and I did the same thing at a Ford Motor plant. I got 35 cents an hour at Wards. It was minimum wage then. Ford, which was unionized, paid much better: 75 cents an hour. I wore out two pairs of work gloves every day at Ford. I had to buy my own.
I spent some time working at a knitting mill, tending a block of knitting machines -- and hoping I'd get out of there with all my fingers intact.
I drove a Pepsi-Cola route for a couple summers during college, and, later, I worked the canning line at 7-Up. I drove a cab off and on over the years, I was a country printer and I published and edited a rural newspaper. I also played soldier for a couple years, getting to visit exotic places like North Korea.
My best-paying job was as a reporter, and later a section editor, at a big-city newspaper.
Working as a reporter was like being on paid vacation. Not only was it easy, it was fun. Working as an editor was easier and paid more. It wasn't as much fun, though.
One of society's best-kept secrets is this: The most pay, power and prestige goes to those with the easiest jobs.
Also, the greatest physical and financial risks are undertaken by those paid the least.
A janitor in the Capitol has a tougher job than the governor. The governor can take months off campaigning, and nobody in the statehouse misses him.
Maybe that's why so many people are running for governor of California.
Labor unions, the original backers of Labor Day, have tried to narrow the gap between the people who own businesses and those who do the labor to make them successful. They've fought mightily to increase pay and benefits and reduce the physical risk of dangerous jobs.
And they've had a lot of success. But, over the years, as they gained more and more power, they eventually ran afoul of Lord Acton's famous 1886 dictum: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
The corruption of labor unions gave conservatives the opening they needed. Instead of mending their every flaw, they worked hard to destroy them, or at least lessen their impact.
So, today, those champions of the working man and woman, the labor unions, have such a bad name that even those who might benefit from them are down on them. And, outside of the public-service sector, they don't have much influence these days.
That has to change. If America is ever to regain its egalitarian middle-class strength, labor unions have to play a part in it.
"United we stand," goes the slogan, "divided we fall."
It's true. Working people -- for example, the underpaid people who work for Wal-Mart -- have to unite and fight back against exploitative companies. Last year's Forbes list of the richest Americans had five relatives of the late Sam Walton among the top 10. Walton founded Wal-Mart and, with the help of very cheap labor, built it into the giant it is.
The Waltons prefer to keep their obscene wealth in their own pockets rather than share it with the people who made them rich.
If that's their gluttonous choice, so be it, but their workers should organize and force a limit on the Waltons' gluttony.
That's what Labor Day is about. It's not about "blowout" sales or "end-of- summer" sales. It's not about another weekend at "the lake" (as we called it in Minnesota, even though the state has 15,000 of them).
It's about little people uniting and taking on giants. It's about creating or maintaining an egalitarian nation, one that's mighty because all its people are strong, economically as well as physically and mentally.
©2003 SF Gate