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Established as a national holiday in 1894, during Grover Cleveland’s second administration, Labor Day was originally intended not only to honor American working men and women but to formally acknowledge the growing stature of the burgeoning U.S. labor movement.
Considering what’s happened during the ensuing 114 years—the public’s subsequent disillusionment with labor unions, coupled with the ability of special-interest groups to mobilize opposition, and the Democratic party’s unreliability and gutlessness—it’s highly unlikely that Congress could get the same holiday passed today. More to the point, it’s doubtful its members would even bother to try.
How far to the right has the country tilted in just 40 years? Under the Republican administration of Richard Nixon, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) became law, food stamps were expanded, federal wage-price controls were initiated, and the Clean Water Act was passed. Under the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton, NAFTA became law, the banking industry was deregulated, and social welfare was all but dismantled.
Not surprisingly, labor has been waylaid by the fallout. Unions have not only lost what remained of the charm and political utility that once sustained them, they’ve seen the one ideological bond that seemed indestructible—the support of the academic left—fray to the point of severing. While labor’s relationship with the soft center of the Democratic party had always been tenuous and prickly, union dialecticians rejoiced in knowing they had academe solidly on their side.
That’s all changed. Today, arguably, American academics have more sympathy for Palestinian suicide bombers and Acapulco cliff divers than for striking auto workers. Despite the occasional rhetorical flourish (usually heard around election time), America’s politicians, mainstream media, general public and lefty academics now treat organized labor the way they treat landfills, criminal recidivism, and radioactive waste—something they’re forced to acknowledge but would rather not discuss.
According to myth, unions were, once upon a time, “legislated into existence” by a benevolent federal government. As the story goes (despite Labor Day’s date of inception), organized labor didn’t really arrive on the scene until after a New Deal Congress passed a series of federal laws to pave the way, the first of which came in 1935 in the form of the National Labor Relations Act, popularly known as the Wagner Act.
The Wagner Act established the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) and guaranteed unions the legal right to organize, strike and collectively bargain. Wagner was followed by other landmark labor legislation, including the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938), Taft-Hartley Act (1947) and Landrum-Griffin Act (1959).
In truth, however, unions had been taking their cow to market—actively organizing and bargaining—for almost 150 years before any major legislation. Remarkably, by the early 1790s union “guilds” had already been well established in this country. There were bootmaker collectives in Philadelphia, tailors in Baltimore, and newspaper print-setters in New York City. As far back as 1825, hundreds of Boston carpenters went on strike for a 10-hour day, and in 1835, mill workers in Paterson, N.J., successfully struck for the 11-hour-day/six-day week
In fact, the decades from the 1880s to the 1900s witnessed a tremendous surge in union membership (particularly in mining, textiles and trade crafts), including, interestingly, the establishment in 1885 of the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, the first pro sports union in history.
But the government’s “protective” New Deal legislation did leave its indelible mark. In one swift stroke, the Wagner Act co-opted the American labor movement, placing its holy trinity (organizing, bargaining, striking) under federal statutory control for the first time.
One doesn’t need an AFL-CIO decoder ring to recognize that by removing labor disputes from the factory floor and the street, and placing them in the venue of the courts, the NLRB shifted the advantage to the party with not only the most money and prestige, but with the most to be gained by stalling tactics. Nothing has been the same since.
Today, while Canadian and European workers are free to join unions simply by signing membership cards, American workers, astonishingly, must petition their government for permission. The bureaucratic thicket created by the Taft-Hartley Act, passed by a Republican Congress over President Truman’s veto( with help from the Democrats), has made becoming a union member more difficult than becoming a U.S. citizen.
In 1913, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Labor cannot on any terms surrender its right to strike,” and he was right. If Congress had been committed to leveling the playing field we would already have laws on the books, like those in Canada and Europe, making it illegal for striking workers to be permanently replaced by scabs. Realistically, what economic leverage do workers have when voting to go on strike is tantamount to giving up their jobs?
A bold proposal: Let us repeal Taft-Hartley, along with the minimum wage, and allow labor to compete in a “free market.” If those free market worshippers mean what they’ve been preaching all these years about the infallibility of the free market, then let the American worker participate “freely” in that market. If joining (or withdrawing from) a union makes sense, then workers should be permitted to make that decision without government interference.
Conversely, if unions are exposed as the obsolete, parasitic institutions they’re portrayed to be, then so be it; allow them to follow the dinosaur and Model T into extinction. But it should be the American worker—not Big Brother—who decides.
DAVID MACARAY, a playwright and writer in Los Angeles, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at Dmacaray@earthlink.net