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.