I’m working today. You probably are too. Years ago, when I was a kid, we wouldn’t have been. At least, not where I came from. See, I grew up in a small town at the end of the old America. I grew up just as America’s manufacturing base was beginning its slow decline. I grew up before the Internet. Before Wal-Mart was America’s largest employer.
Back then, in that place, we took Labor Day off.
I didn’t grow up in Lake Wobegon. Our town was not perfect, but it was stable. Its stability offered a chance at community and dignity for those living there. A lot of that stability was a result of the factory a few blocks from my house where my dad worked for thirty years. The stability of the community meant no one I knew there lived an extravagant lifestyle. We had some poor kids at school, but the gulf between them and the rich kids wasn’t really that wide. When I heard about rich people, I assumed whoever was talking meant schoolteachers or, maybe, lawyers.
The factory was a source of the stability and predictability we enjoyed, and which has now vanished for millions, because of the union. I grew up a union kid. I am here, in my office today, typing this because the UAW Local 371 stood up, insisting workers be paid a fair wage. If they could have gotten away with it, the company my father worked for would have paid him as little as possible just as they are doing that now in China or Mexico or wherever. Without the union my family would have lived in poverty for generations.
Of course, the unions weren’t perfect. There were abuses. There was corruption. Grift abounded. But, their net effect was to create a thriving set of American communities where manufacturing jobs offered an entryway into the middle-class. The social mobility the unions made possible generated community enthusiasm and social cohesion. In short, because of the union, the American small town experienced a heyday it may never see again.
Ironically, conservatives who otherwise champion small town life have vilified the unions that made it possible. The talk-radio strand of conservatism has convinced millions that unions and the workers they represent are the enemies of the American middle class, and the wealthy who control the corporations are their friends.
At the same time, global free-market oriented leftists have been just as bad. Let’s remember it was Bill Clinton who signed NAFTA into law. In spite of their plentiful disagreements, both our major political parties have agreed that organized labor and the kind of small town life it made possible had to go.
The role of organized labor in creating small-town life continues to go mostly unrecognized. We can see today, long after the factories have shuttered, what our town would have been back then had it not been for the power of organized labor: bereft of opportunities, especially for those with limited skills, full of despair and riddled with serious drug use.
All this brings me back to why we are working today. As organized labor has wained in power, Labor Day has been relegated to “National Fall Cookout Day”. As people have moved into jobs in the information and service sectors, like those working at the virulently anti-union Wal-Mart, our connection to the heritage of organized labor has weakened.
No longer have we any reason to look back on those who stood together against the most abusive capitalist impulses. We have no need to consider that perhaps their example can still inspire. We have no knowledge, no ability to reflect on the system that has destroyed so many union jobs and with them the communities they made possible. No longer is Labor Day a moment of leisure to reflect on the place of the individual worker in a largely indifferent system. Labor Day is no longer an opportunity to consider how our economic systems can be made more just.
Instead, for too many of us, it’s just another day at work.
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