Giving Labor Its Due

Tomorrow will be Labor Day.

It has been celebrated mainly with big sales at big stores — certainly not a way to give the people who labor in them time off to celebrate. In fact, many people have labored overtime in such stores on that day.  There have also been celebratory dinners, picnics, and speeches. Before COVID-19, there were big parades.

The contributions that labor has made, and makes, to our nation—the roads, the bridges, the railroads, the houses and other buildings, the automobiles, the trucks, the airplanes, the ships, the tanks, the drones, the cared-for elders and infirm, the sales in retail shops, the service in restaurants, the cleaning in some of our houses, in hospitals, and on our streets, etc.—are very evident.

 Also evident is the fact that we do not value financially many, probably most, of those who labor for us. 

However, Labor Day was begun to celebrate the contributions that labor has made to “the strength, prosperity and well being of our country,” and to “the social and economic achievements of American workers.” It was first celebrated in New York City on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, by the Central Labor Union and the Knights of Columbus. 

Municipalities began recognizing Labor Day in 1885, Oregon recognized it in 1887, 24 states had recognized it by 1894, and on June 28, 1894, Congress made the first Monday in September a legal holiday to honor labor.

U.S. Origins

That recognition was precipitated by The Pullman Strike, in which 250,000 workers in 27 states joined forces with the Pullman Company workers who were striking because their wages had been cut, but their rent in company-owned housing was not. The strike included a massive boycott against all trains that included a car that had been made by the Pullman Company. After the strikers refused to stop interfering with trains that carried the mail, the Army was called in, and 30 strikers were killed and 57 wounded.  

However, 6 days after the strike ended, in order to conciliate organized labor (that is, unions), President Cleveland and Congress designated Labor Day as a federal holiday. 


What have been the economic achievements of American workers?

Certainly they do not receive the income or have the wealth of the upper 1%, or even 10%, of people in our nation. The middle class, among whom many workers once were included, has largely disappeared.  Many workers are now among those who receive the lowest incomes in our nation, and very many were unemployed, even before the pandemic. 

I often wonder as I read about $15 per hour being touted as a desirable minimum wage, how well families throughout our nation can live on the $31,200 income that working 40 hours per week for 52 weeks at $15 per hour provides!—how they can pay for food, health care, rent or mortgages, clothing, transportation, and education, and have money for recreation. . . and be expected to save.

This is true as the incomes of paper pushers and so-called financial experts have greatly multiplied, and as many laboring jobs  (in textile firms, automobile manufacturing companies, etc.) have gone to foreign lands, resulting in more money for the paper pushers and so-called financial experts, and much less for our nation’s actual workers.

This has been true as a large number of the nation’s unions—one kind of organization workers formed to try to get their due—have been forced out of existence. By the end of World War II, more than 12 million workers belonged to unions, and by 1970 about a third of America’s wage earners (but not including the low-wage secondary labor market) belonged to them. Unions had helped workers to gain wage increases, pensions, and health insurance through collective bargaining. However, 1980 saw the anti-union administration of President Reagan, and by the end of the 1980s, fewer than 17% of American workers were union members. I remember being aghast in the mid ’80s at a Hartford UU church dinner when a tablemate boasted about his union-busting practices—union-busting practices that may still exist.

The Situation Now

According to the U. S. Labor Department, union membership dropped to 10.3% of wage-and-salary workers in 2019 and, according to a January 2020 CBS News report, the drop in union membership has been caused by “fierce corporate opposition spending millions of dollars in antiunion campaigns and lobbying the government to weaken labor laws”.

The director of policy at the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute reported that employers spend about $340 million a year on consultants that help keep workers from unionizing, and management breaks the law in 41% of union elections. 

However, unions are still struggling to get economic justice for both union and nonunion workers.  

In this week’s issue of The Nation, PE Moskowitz tells about Target Workers Unite, an organization created in 2018 that currently has 500 Target employees in 44 states, including self-trained organizers who have had some success, without unions, in getting Target management to act as it preaches.

Worker-owned cooperatives  (businesses owned and managed by their workers) are another kind of organization workers formed to try to get their due. The United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives’ website says it has 100+ (and growing!) worker coöperatives and that democratic workplace members represent over 1600 individual worker-owners.

An Alternative: Germany

My personal preference for the kind of system organized to give workers their due is codetermination, the unique way in which Germans have the right to elect their representatives to their companies’ supervisory boards. Most of what I shall say about it is what I found on-line in a 2017 article by Arthur Sullivan, “Representing Workers the German Way,” The idea that German workers should have proper presentation and status has a long history, going back to the guild system in medieval times, dedicated workers’ councils at the time of the 1848 Frankfurt Parliament, and again under the Weimar Republic. 

Although it was not compatible with the Nazi era, codetermination  reëmerged with the postwar German democracy, and the Co-determination Act of 1976  allows for workers in public and private companies with more than 2000 employees to elect up to half the members of their companies supervisory boards of directors, and companies with 500 to 2000 employees to elect up to a third , giving workers a powerful say in in how their companies are run, from overall strategy to everyday minutiae. There are also workers councils, established by the German Workers Council Constitution Act, that are representative groups drawn from a company’s employee base and designated to further codetermination rights, particularly concerning matters of employee welfare. Workers in any private company with more than 5 employees are entitled to have a workers’ council.

In Germany, there are also joint employee and employer’s unions, not usually within a company but, instead, within an industry, and they negotiate wages and pay scales. 

Codetermination in the U.S.?

A February 2019 article by Steven Hills shows that there is interest on co-determination in the United States. The article says that

Over the past year in the United States, German-style codetermination has moved closer to center stage in the national debate over inequality and worker’s rights. Several high profile Democratic Party leaders, including . . . Senator Elizabeth Warren, have proposed partially worker-elected boards of directors for major corporations. Senate Bill 3348 is gaining attention, not only as a response to the right-wing populism of President Donald Trump, but, also . . . as the US tries to cope with the long-term decline of trade unions and worker’s rights. 

This bill aims not only to introduce codetermination to the U.S., but more broadly to transform the skewed market incentives of “shareholder capitalism” that push companies to invest far more in maximizing shareholder value than in their workforces and communities. It seeks to reverse the trends that over the last 30 years have led to record corporate profits and rising worker productivity. but stagnant wages and declining labor power.”

Matthew Yglesias wrote in Vox that Warren’s proposals could “save capitalism.”

And Lenore Pallidino, an Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst says

For the last 4 decades large corporations have given the maximization of shareholder value as their sole goals

(and my reading pointed out that half of U.S. households own no stock at all). Pallidino says also

Workers are crucial stakeholders for the success of large corporations

therefore they should be represented on decision-making corporate boards. 

I think that goes a long way toward giving labor its due.

Rev. Judy Deutsch, 6 September 2020

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