Putting the Labor in Labor Day
David Letterman quips that Americans celebrate Labor Day by going out and buying stuff made in China. That would be funny if it weren’t so obviously true. A little weekend shopping – a new ice bucket (still can’t fathom what happened to the old one), a salad bowl and some tea candles – resulted in a handful of purchases all made in China or somewhere else. Not even one American-made product in the shopping bag.
Can America remain a global power without a manufacturing economy? I guess we’ll find out.
As the president rolls out a new plan to create jobs and address American infrastructure needs, the icy facts about the decline of the nation’s ability to plan, design and build things is hard to ignore, even as most in policy positions do just that.
Once upon a time Labor Day was about celebrating the American Labor movement. From Boston to Butte, from the IWW to the IBEW, unions fought, scrapped, lost and won battles that shaped the American economy. Not so much in the 21st Century. The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne connects the lack of American prosperity today to the great shrinking labor movement. A third of American workers belonged to a union in the prosperous 1950’s. The number is just over 12 percent today. I’ll leave it to the labor economists to connect the dots, if they can be connected – organized labor’s demise = decline in American manufacturing = a struggling U.S. economy = increasing separation among the very wealthy and the rest of our society.
As the American Prospect noted late last year, the U.S. lost 5.5 million – 32 percent – of all its manufacturing jobs from October 2000 to October 2009. More people are unemployed in the United States today than are employed in manufacturing. Since 2001, more than 42,000 American factories have gone the way of the dodo bird. Not resting, but dead. Meanwhile, China’s manufacturing economy is cited as a reason for a bump last week in the Asia stock markets.
Twenty-five years ago, Idahoans – in the legislature and at the ballot box – pulled the teeth of organized labor in Idaho. It was the nastiest, toughest, most consequential political fight in my time in the state. Conservatives won and the number of Idahoans who are members of labor unions declined by 50 percent. With those declines went the once not inconsiderable clout of organized labor to field political foot soldiers and contribute campaign cash. You can mark the steady decline of Idaho’s Democratic Party over the last 25 years to the passage of Right to Work in 1986, even as Cecil Andrus, an opponent of Right to Work and a favorite in the union halls, was returned to the governorship that year.
You can still get a debate going by asking whether Right to Work has been good – or not – for Idaho. Conservatives argue that job growth over those years proves that Idaho is a great place to do business. Others suggest that Idaho’s declining standing in wages, as compared to the rest of the country, proves that the law has been bad for workers. That debate will never be settled.
Writing in the Post, Harold Meyerson contends that the Great Recession has harmed American workers far more than their counterparts in Europe where organized labor remains strong and a substantial political force. The clout of American labor will continue to decline unless and until leaders of the movement quit doing the same thing over and over and hoping for different results.
Before I get typecast as nostalgic for the “good ol’ days” of shift changes, suds at the union hall and Labor Day picnics, I’ll offer the thought that union leaders must shoulder a good deal of the responsibility for the decline they so readily lament. They have often been tone deaf, cranky and unreasonable and restoring anything approaching their historic standing will require a new generation with new attitudes and tactics. We’ll see.
Still, on this Labor Day this much is true: for whatever reason(s), the American – and Idaho – economy is a lot different than it was a quarter century ago. Lots of “blue collar” jobs in traditional industries are gone forever. Chinese exports flood the U.S. market. Politicians make Labor Day speeches about rebuilding the nation’s economy, but you have to wonder, as another holiday designed to honor labor comes and goes, whether we can rebuild without building things – all kinds of things – again.