When I was in office in the 70’s and 80’s, unions were much stronger than they are today. For example, Wichita with the aircraft industry and the Machinist Union had not only good salaries but positive economic benefit to the community. Today, with significantly fewer union families and declining salaries in real terms, the negative impact on retail (etc.) has been significant. You don’t have to be a Ph.D. economist to know when salaries stagnate and the cost of basic needs go up, the results show up and down mainstreet.
So how has this decline happened? I would say it wasn’t just the actions of management. Both sides have contributed. Although union leaders have generally been consistent with their priorities, I believe that the problem over the years has been that far too many of their members have not taken seriously the need to actively participate in the legislative process. I remember going to Union Halls and finding members most concerned about gun issues and abortion, issues that certainly were not on their union leader's agenda. They just assumed their union status would keep right on going whether they worked their leaders’ agenda or not.
The success of unions has been tied to collective bargaining as well as a realization that, in the end, the company or institution needed to be left with a successful path forward. When that was not the case, when unions went too far, everyone got hurt, including the image of the labor movement.
The effectiveness of the anti-labor movement has also had great impact. For example, choosing the title “Right to Work” for legislation was, in my opinion, a brilliant political maneuver. How could an uninformed person be anything but supportive? But this law is not really the Right to Work at all. It is the right to avoid paying union dues while any benefits that result from the negotiations—to the employees themselves or the labor market as a whole—still come your way. How did that become the American way? How did the management side, the owners, pull this off? The right slogan didn’t hurt, and the push for a state-by-state approach to dismantling workers’ rights started us down a path that has been hard to reverse.
Monday will be another Labor Day holiday with big parades like in Hoisington, KS. Established as a Federal Holiday in 1894, Labor Day was meant to be a celebration of the American labor movement and dedicated to the social and economic achievements of all workers. But often, the salute to the working men and women of this country gets lost. It’s another holiday break, a three day weekend, and a continuing decline and struggle for the middle class.
So, in the original spirit of this celebration, here is my salute to the men and women who are our educators, laborers skilled and unskilled, firefighters, law enforcement officers, postal workers, civil servants, and workers of all kinds. You certainly have my thanks and appreciation, but also my hopes for a better future. Until the American people better understand the connection between organized labor and the benefits to all workers and the middle class in general, I fear this path of decline will only continue.