Phil Power | Labor Day has lost some luster, as partisanship pulls us apart

Phil Power is founder and chairman of The Center for Michigan. 

When I was growing up in the 1950s, Labor Day marked the beginning of the big-time political season.

Thousands of union members would link arms in solidarity as they marched down Woodward Avenue in Detroit.  Candidates for office – often including president – competed for attention. Crowds were big and boisterous.  Speeches were fiery. The event drew big news coverage.

I haven’t been to a Labor Day parade in Detroit in years.  Maybe it's my age, but my impression is that it’s less of a big deal now.  Maybe that says something about what's happened in our country since I was a kid.

An indication: Look at the crowded expressways headed north this weekend. Many folks, whether union members or not, would rather get up north for the holiday than congregate in Detroit. In many ways, a four-day weekend with family and friends looks better than a bunch of political speeches delivered to crowds of strangers.

Certainly, it reflects a change in public priorities brought about by the changed political climate in our country.  Partisanship seems at an all-time high, even as class divisions and income inequality continue to steadily erode our common concerns.

Without a doubt, organized labor has had great success in improving wages, benefits and working conditions over the past decades.  Despite falling union membership and vastly increasing income inequality, unions have led a great change in the lot of working people.  

But by traditional standards, many are no longer members of the "working class.” Instead, many have become more middle-class, complete with cabins and boats up north, family vacations and a slew of other ways to spend their leisure time and disposable income.

It’s a bit of irony that, for many in the labor movement, the successes over the past decades have made demonstrations of class solidarity less important.

I used to live in England, a country where class differences are far more important and pervasive than in America.  You could go into a pub and pick out with a high success rate folks who were working class – all distinct in dress, in accent and in attitude. What marks you for life there is often what kind of school you go to –  oddly, private schools are called "public schools,” while public schools are called “state schools.” And it’s no surprise that English schools are incubators of the class consciousness that plays such an important role in English society.

Most kids in the United States go to public schools, perhaps the most important institution of a democratically oriented society. And many very good universities –  especially public ones – are actively trying to diversity the class, income and ethnicity of their student bodies.

The slogan on our dollar bills, “E pluribus unum,” – the Latin phrase for "out of many, one" –   defines both our national aspiration and our secular religion. That's optimistic goal, but is it a realistic one these days when we see such disparities, particularly among minorities?

All the same, our society is more politically divided and polarized than it has been for many years.  Consider that most of the recent economic progress has occurred in upper-middle class families. The core of President Trump's support rests in relatively lower class, less educated white working families, which have benefited less from the past decade's economy –   an odd outcome for a populist political narrative.

This may have something to do with resentment.  But it also rests historically with the relative indifference of elites for the concerns and anxieties of those who are less well off.

So amid the speechifying on Labor Day, we might want to reflect that, on one of the most American of all holidays, there’s a tremendous need for more and better linking us together –  maybe much more than 70 years ago when I was growing up. So let’s take the Labor Day rhetoric with a grain of salt ... and a bit more sense of urgency.

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Thu, 08/29/2019 - 7:41am

The significance of Labor Day has been sidelined long ago into being just a long weekend for a last of the summer camping trip or other outdoor activity, same with Memorial Day being a start of the summer camping trip or picnic while the real significance of the day not cared about or understood by many people.

Thu, 08/29/2019 - 7:47am

Happy to see you back!
I would argue that Labor day is a made up holiday that never a great basis for its existence in the first place. as opposed the 4th of July or Memorial Day. Why not Management Day? Newspaper publisher day? Public Employee Day? Entrepreneur Day? If everyone thinks they work ,which all most all do, what do we have other than an excuse for another day off?? Unless we're going to call it Organized Labor Day, that wouldn't cause any kerfaffle would it?

Al Churchill
Fri, 08/30/2019 - 12:49am

A made up holiday that never had a great basis for its existence? How about the Ludlow Massacre where 57 miners were killed by Rockefeller guards that set fire to miners tents even though they were on private property? Their union leader was held by two militia members and shot in the back by a third. All they wanted was mine safety, their own doctor instead of a company doctor, an eight hour day, fair pay and a union. Or how about the five workers shot in the back at McCormick Iron Works as they ran from armed guards. They too were just demonstrating for an eight hour day and better working conditions generally. How about the women who died in a shirt manufacturing factory in New York. They died because they were deliberately locked in a room with no way out when the building caught on fire. How about the workers hung in Chicago after the Haymarket Riot because the Chicago Tribune just about sealed their fate with a horrific attack on them. The Governor of Illinois pardoned others scheduled to be hung because of what he thought was shaky evidence. What about the five marchers shot by police in a Hunger march in Detroit in the middle of the Depression? Or what about the Battle of the Overpass, where UAW organizers were beaten and bloodied by Ford thugs while the Dearborn police stood by and watched. That is except for one time when they stopped the Ford goons from further beating on a lady unionist. The police thought Fords thugs were going to kill the lady. What about Walter Reuther, who was picked up an thrown down again over three flights of stairs, probably avoided being killed because some reporters saw what was happening, picked Reuther up and threw him in their car, then drove away. Them there was the Homestead strike at Carnagie's steel mill in Pennsylvania---more unionists killed.

How about the practice of blackballing workers if they gave management any grief. It was common practice for owners to put the word out about a worker to other businesses if that worker was deemed a problem or in favor of a union. A blackball meant that a worker would not be hired by other businesses. Indeed, the leader of the Homestead union, nicknamed Lucky by the way, was blackballed and could not find work in this country. He was last seen working in a mine in Mexico.

Closer to home, the accepted narrative is that Henry Ford was a generous man. He wanted his employees to be able to purchase the cars that they were manufacturing. So he started the five dollar day pay rate. Ford deserves his elevated place in history because he was a pioneer in the standardization of parts necessary for mass production. That being said, the five dollar a day came about, not because Ford cared about his employees, but because the annual employee turnover rate was 309%. Work conditions were so bad in Ford's factory that nobody would stick around. Ford had to replace his entire workforce three times a year. He had to pay five dollars a day to keep the workforce in his shop. Even then Ford's Sociology Department could enter your home for inspection. If your lifestyle dissatisfied Ford, you did not get five dollars a day.

Let's touch briefly on the law and government, starting with the Clayton and Sherman Anti-Trust laws. Inspired by the great trust-buster Teddy Roosevelt, those laws were clearly intended to hinder a monopoly condition by business interests, Unfortunately President Grover Cleveland and his Attorney General, Richard Olney, thought differently. When union members went on strike during Cleveland's administration, they turned the Clayton and Sherman laws on their respective heads, claiming that unions, as monopoly's, were in restraint of trade, Clearly, that was not he intent of the legislature that created Clayton and Sherman.. That's just one of a ton of examples.

More recently, the Republican legislature and Governor in Michigan passed an anti-union Right to Work bill. Then they attached a financial appropriation to the bill, in affect disallowing Michigan citizens from putting the issue on the ballot through a referendum procedure,

From the Republican's point of view, that's probably a good thing as a recent poll shows 64% of Americans favoring unions.

>>> never a great basis for it's existence? Aside from the people of color among us, I doubt that any group in this country has so been so hammered and consistently beaten down as America's workforce. Let's not forget that today the top 1% are in possession of 40% of the country:s total wealth while wages have been stagnant for forty years. The CEO of Disney makes 1100 times what the average worker makes. If I have read Adam Smith correctly, there is no economic theory that justifies either being the case. Let's also not forget that our current President has put a corporate lawyer that has spent a lifetime litigating against unions and employees generally at the head of the federal Department of Labor.

Those among us that have grabbed a cup of coffee and a piece of toast on the way to work as employees have earned a special day and much more respect than Matt is able to give us.

I know. I walked on a picket line with one of the brightest, most imaginative, man this country has ever produced---Walter Reuther.

Fri, 08/30/2019 - 9:02am

Al, Seems it's your position here that the only workers you want to celebrate are those that support you in your union position? Since you brought him up, didn't Walter die when his private plane crashed going to some cushy union compound up at Black Lake.? Doesn't sound like some poor working stiff to me. As polls are meaningless, the only ones that matter are what people really do and in that your unions seem to have lost relevance with working people as seemingly they're r not to excited to provide private planes, big salaries to new leaders or political donations to people they don't support?. Or maybe they think they're treated pretty well without them? Unlike your apparent position, all work is honorable not just unionized work, so there we have "Worker Day" celebrating anyone and everyone who works? And who doesn't? Or maybe more specific "Employer day" for paying us while we play? No, just another day off, not searching for a reason.

Al Churchill
Sat, 08/31/2019 - 12:31pm

Matt---Nice try. But no cigar!

Contrary to your allegation that Walter Reuther never picked up any tools, let me inform you that Walter worked as a Tool and Diemaker for Ford Motor Company before becoming deeply involved in furthering the welfare of fellow employees. Let me further inform you that the plane that he died in was a small prop driven plane, certainly not similar to the very large, comfortable jet owned by a steel company that I was sent to, by my employer, to check out as a supplier. Additionally, when you indicate that Reuther, "Doesn't sound like some poor working stiff to me.", given what is written in the first sentence above, this is your chance to admit being wrong. The fact that both Walter and his brother, Victor, were victims of shotgun blasts through the window of their home residences gives credence to their commitment to employees and unionism. Victor was blinded in one eye and Walters arm never regained full use of his arm.

You referred to the UAW Family Education Center as 'Some cushy union compound...." Inasmuch as I doubt that you have been there, I'll assume that you just don't know of what you speak. If you have been there, please explain the term "cushy"

My family was there. My family and I spent a week of our vacation there. My kids were put up at a separate Childrens Village with plenty of age appropriate activities, supervised by adults and college kids, working for the summer. My wife and I attended classes that expanded our view of the world in numerous ways, . Then there were the evening walks along the lake shore. My kids, grown now, still mention the good time they had at Black Lake. But not quite "cushy".

Concerning polls; there is a diierence in quality among polls. On the other hand, some ware quite accurate over time. Using them is a matter of being selective. The poll mentioned in my comment, 64% of people favoring unions, is consistent with other polls that I have seen. At the very least, most polls show that unions are regaining favor, contrary to you contention that they are irrelevant.

Certainly, they have meaning for the members of my former local, UAW Local 182, in Livonia. After the Republicans passed a Right To Work Bill, at the same time disallowing public citizens to put the issue on the ballot through the referendum process, not one member of the Local opt'ed to stop paying union dues. Not one! Not one!

Three out of a few thousand requested that political money stop being deducted from their paycheck. It was. Sorry to correct you again. But nobody in the UAW is forced to pay dues money for politicians that they disagree with.

It's been a while since I've checked the salary of the UAW leadership. But when I did, the amount was acceptable, considering the responsibility attached.

Then, when you comment upon huge salaries and private planes, aren't you essentially describing corporate CEO's? Please explain to me, if you dare, how the salary of Disney's CEO is worth more than 1100 times the value of a typical employee. Explain to me why the payout for CEO's has, irrationally, shot up exponentially while, for decades, wages for the common folk have stagnated? There was a time when a Japanese CEO made 11 or 12 times what their employees made. Indeed American CEO's once made considerably less proportionally to their employees.

Come on Matt. Your response to my comment was cherry picked. Answer the parts that you did not cherry pick.

Explain to me how the top 1% owning 40% of the country's total wealth is justified.

In closing let me stray a bit. A while back, you responded to a writer by saying that he spent his time in his mothers basement watching gay porn. I would like for you and the editor of Bridge to explain how that helped the conversation.

Like I said Matt, no cigar

Sat, 08/31/2019 - 11:52pm

You're right Al, you shoot off in so many directions one has no choice but to pick up on some of your points and ignore the rest. No claim was made that Reuther never picked up any tools, but he is a excellent example the privileged position of Labor and other left wing leaders, "Some animals are more equal than other animals", in this case supported by forced contributions ended by now what you decry as right to work laws. By the way corporate jets weren't really a thing in 1970 - any plane was a huge luxury! And whether you want to admit the union's Black lake compound is a cushy resort, or Re-Education camp the whole thing is bought and paid for by forced contributions from people who will never go there or even want to. What companies pay their CEO is not really my concern as I'm not forced to pay it or even forced to own stock in that company again unlike your wish for forced union contributions. Neither am I troubled by unequal wealth, especially since state confiscation never ends to the general citizen's benefit as most recently demonstrated in Venezuela.

Al Churchill
Tue, 09/03/2019 - 1:01am

How one could use the word "cushy" preceding the sentence, "Doesn't sound like some poor working stiff to me." and then claim that, "No claim was made that Reuther never picked up any tools..". is beyond me. I'll leave it at that.

Additionally, Your allegation that I shot "off in so many directions one has no choice but pick up on some of your points and ignore the rest", leaves much to be desired. The essay illustrated an appropriate example of employee history, reference to the law and how it was twisted to harm employees and not much else. It was to the point and coherently written. You had a choice. as far as I'm concerned, You avoided responding to parts of the essay that demolished a horrible, horrible history of behavior by the business community. That, my friend, is called intellectual dishonesty.

In reference to rank and file union members going to Black Lake, contrary to your contention that some, "will never go there or even want to", there are many who want to go and do go. I have yet to meet anyone who returned without a positive expression of the experience. Except perhaps you. If you were there please, in detail, explain why you have a negative opinion. Otherwise----hush. As you have done, labeling Black Lake as a Soviet or Chinese style re-education center denigrates the intelligence of, not only UAW members, but all employees. Given that, in previous posts, you have claimed that the people always get it wrong, I won't even try to respond.Concerning you allegation that Black Lake is financed by "forced contributions", as are union dues forced, let's go back in history a bit.

In1787, a Constitutional Convention convened with a document created by some of the finest minds in the land. Because ratification of the Constitution was questionable in New York, the Federalist Papers were written and distributed in that state, While, not a majority, many did not vote to ratify the basis of American law. What about those people? Should they not pay taxes since they benefit from being declared a citizen of our republic? Yeah they should pal. It's called a social contract and majority rules with minority rights.

Unions are no different. There was once an election held and because of treatment similar to that outlined in my essay, which you chose to "ignore", the union won a majority. I am proud to restate, in the local union that this writer belonged to, not one, not one UAW member chose to have his dues refunded. Do I have to explain the message?

Again I correct you. You stated that, "What companies pay their CEO is really not my concern as I'm not forced to pay it". Sorry Matt, You do pay it in the price of their product or service.

It doesn't bother you that the top 1% are in -possession of 40% of the total wealth in the country? That degree of wealthy inequality hasn't been seen since the first Gilded Age and it cannot be justified either then or now.

Early in our history, it was accepted that the volume and quality of labor would determine value in the marketplace. Most economists have agreed throughout our national experence. It is economically sound that there should be differentials in financial compensation. That being said, someone is going to have to show me a credible economic theory that allows the labor Disney's CEO to make 1100 times more than the average person working there.

Finally, "...state confisfiscation (of wealth) never ends to the general citizen benefit...." The police, firemen, the military, rivers that are not on fire because of government (public) intervention, social programs that help the lesser among us, air that is less polluted, all of these and more benefit the citizens of this country. What that's got to do with Venezuela is a mystery to me.

Still no cigar.

Sun, 09/01/2019 - 7:56am

According to Wiki he died in a Lear jet not some single engine Cessna as union propagandists like to portray. Again a jet just like the corporate CEOs you castigate ! As Orwell wrote in my favorite kids book ," some animals are more equal than other animals". I bet they don't read that book to the kiddies up at Black Lake!

Al Churchill
Mon, 09/02/2019 - 10:27pm

I apologize. The plane that Reuther was in when he died was a jet. However, unlike your allegation that it was his "private" plane, it was chartered. By the way, it is a personal opinion that there are some decent people, not only on salary, but who identify as CEO's.

A while ago, I had occasion to spot Bill Ford across an athletic field. His son had played on a soccer game that my grandson had also played in. Wearing a UAW jacket and cap, I walked up to him, shook his hand and thanked him for everything that he and his family had done for Michigan, indeed, the world. He emphatically responded, "No---thank YOU." As far as I am concerned his response was honestly felt and sincere. In the future, please do not assume that I judge everybody in any group to be identical. That being said, there are predators among us.

While I was on salary, I worked with a ton of great people.

On the other hand, a member of management that I worked with attempted to place a carcinigenic oil in a process where employees would have been exposed.

You're right. Animal Farm is not to be found at Black Lake. However, Wealth of Nations, written by Adam Smith and published the same year as the Declaration of Independence, was. Recognized world-wide for providing a legitimate basis for, what was then a budding capitalism, Smith that "self interest" was the primary motive in the new economic system --not quite the type of book that a propagandist or re-educator might use.

Sorry pal. No cigar again.

Al Churchill
Sat, 08/31/2019 - 3:27pm

Don't use weaselly words like, "Seems it's your position..." to put words in my mouth. Historically, Labor Day has been a holiday celebrating all employees and that is the way I meant my commentary. You suggesting otherwise won't change that, Make a concrete accusation if you feel confident. Otherwise, silence is golden. The same applies to , ""your apparent position". Nowhere in my commentary did I even come close to saying that toil outside of union work is not honorable. All work became honorable with the Protestant Reformation and I have supported that declaration for all of my life. Another weaselly try to put words in my mouth. I might also comment on your idea of having an "employer day" for paying us while we play." The money accrued during vacation period or holiday, etc., is more accurately described as deferred compensation. It is earned money held back from our weekly paychecks, to be used for vacations, etc. Only a severely biased anti-union outlook could imagine an employer would pay an employee for "play" in the context that you present.

Again; nice try, no cigar

Bill H
Fri, 08/30/2019 - 10:12am

This is probably one of the best commentaries on Labor Day I have read over the 55 years I had and have been working. It does not end when you are 71 as you begin to take on other tasks such as what you have done, the reiteration of the history of how we got to where we are today.

My dad was a union bricklayer/tuckpointer and I worked with him as a laborer up till I was 19 and left for the Marine Corp in 68. During that time. I learned what I could of his trade, how to rig rope scaffolds, splice the rope used to lower and raise them, and most of all how to maintain balance on a scaffold when you were many stories up in the air against a building. Eventually, they went to cable. The only suggestion my dad made to me was "not to take up the trade he did."

I did not and neither did my brothers and sister. From a man who never completed grade school and a woman who was a high school graduate came 4 of us with advanced degrees. I would like to think we are successful in our own right; but, we owe to a man and woman who did their best to provide for us.

The common complaint of business is the cost of labor. Having done manufacturing throughput analysis a number of years, the direct cost of labor in a product has not been an issue since the sixties. If you remember, Gettelfinger testified in front of Congress and I listened to it all being made in front of a Congress who more than likely never walked the factory floor. He made one comment which caught my ear and I grinned: paraphrased, "the cost of Labor in an automobile is 10%."

If you wish to lower costs, whack Materials or Overhead, the latter is based on some of those benefits achieved by labor over the years. In which case, I would ask the question, shall we give up child labor laws, OT laws, OSHA laws for the work place, environmental laws preventing pollution, workman's comp, etc.

I have written too much here as it is. Thank you for your comment. I will use it on Labor Day.


Bill H.

Mon, 09/02/2019 - 5:43pm

You over simplify even how businesses operates and thus perpetuate the stereotype thinking both about 'labor' and about the nature of organizations.
Labor Day was create as a platform for Unions and the politics they promote. If you look back there was no effort to bring non-union labor into the parades, there was no effort to recognize work of other than what was represented by the Unions.
Even today, when you raise the specters of workplace laws and regulation you ignore how the work environment, the nature of work, and even the value placed on labor and work by employers has changed. The reality you ignore is that each law/regulation were built on practices already in place by employers. Your thinking is still in the 1950s and even 1960s and clinging to the 1940s and earlier, a time when organizations were a top down and the knowledge was perceived to reside at the top of the organization along with responsibility and authority. You missed the transition in the workplace environment where the shift of responsibility/authority has been to 'labor', and with the transition from an economy of leveraging individual strength/stamina became one leveraging knowledge/skills. You further delude yourself trying to believe that laws drive practices. Laws /rules trail society's accepted practices and thinking. I expect you view laws/regulations as a means for command and control of people's and organization's actions/practices, today it should as a source of knowledge [best practices] to help other improve performance.

Labor Day should be enjoyed for what and why it has been assimilated into our culture, it marks the end of summer and let's thinking shift to fall and school, it's another expected opportunity for extended families to gather. The disappointing side is with politics, and Labor Day has a history of being a platform to divide but no one is talking about how it could have a part of bridging the divide.

Nick Ciaramitaro
Thu, 08/29/2019 - 11:38am

You make a number of good points but ignore some important ones. Detroit's Labor Day parade went on a vacation itself for a number of years but it has come back strong. There are also Labor Day parades in Flint and Marquette and other cities across the state and nation. The distinction about labor day parades, unlike other parades is that the people are participating in the parade, not watching it. Come on back and see and you might be surprised. We are starting at the "Corner" (Michigan and Trumbell).
But you are correct in pointing out that many people opt to go "up north" or otherwise take a long weekend. Let's not forget that the labor movement is entitled to much of the credit for their ability to do so - or for the existence of a weekend at all. Many younger people, and even some people our age, aren't aware of working conditions before labor organizations. The sit-down strikes and the battle of the overpass are largely forgotten. The problem is that those who do not learn from history are probably doomed to repeat it.

Thu, 08/29/2019 - 12:50pm

> The core of President Trump's support rests in relatively lower class, less educated white working families, which have benefited less from the past decade's economy – an odd outcome for a populist political narrative.

This is incorrect. The biggest supporters of the Republican party in the Trump era are not the white working class, but relatively rich, but less-educated whites:

Thu, 08/29/2019 - 2:26pm

I can only talk about what the significance of Labor Day was to my family.
Both of my grandparents worked when Taylorism ruled the way workers were treated as just easily replaceable cogs. My father started out under that system but was able to experience the changes when labor unions came in. He talked about working for a company that made tires and the company would sent out people to inspect if their brand of tires were on your car and be immediately fired if not. He talked about not being paid when your machine broke down and having to be at work 10 to 14 hours to get your 8 hours in.
To him Labor Day's significance was the change in attitude of honoring , respecting and being treated fairly as LABORers who had an important role in the success of America.
But I agree that to way too many people Memorial Day is not to honor our veterans who paid the ultimate price in defense of our country but a three day weekend to start summer, just as Labor Day is a three day weekend to end it.

Fri, 08/30/2019 - 3:08am

The scary thing from my perspective is a recent poll that showed millennials have no feelings toward patriotism, religion, or family. They also have no feeling for history or past practices, and are quite content with a socialist system that provides free stuff and equality.

Sat, 08/31/2019 - 11:11pm

Then they should love Labor Day!

Susan Donnelly
Sun, 09/01/2019 - 7:44am

I'd say it's more likely because many people do not have the weekend off but have to work. Many businesses no longer close for the weekend.