As I write this column, the Labor Day weekend is coming to an end. As in most of the last 50 years, I attended a Labor-oriented Labor Day picnic in Duluth. It was announced that similar commemorating gatherings have occurred in Duluth for most of the past 122 years.
While individuals, non-union and even anti-union and Republicans attend and circulate, the event is organized, financed and otherwise made possible by most all of the Duluth area local unions acting as sponsors, hosts and workers for the event.
While attendance has been holding steady, or maybe even growing, it is quite observable that both the workers and guests are of grayer and lesser hair. That is a clear sign of the times, as it is in our churches, service clubs, political units and most of the community organizations. The now generation(s) are not likely to pry themselves away from the technical devices to engage in traditional collective activity or a celebration thereof.
Nevertheless, the mood and speeches at the Labor events in Duluth and nearby Cloquet were very upbeat, as union membership is leveling off across the nation and negative trends are reversing. Union labor has been much maligned all over in recent years, including the opinion pages of this newspaper.
The fact is that unions exist and are much needed because we have unreasonable employers who are unwilling to treat their employees fairly, unless required to do so.
History has shown too clearly that employers with unlimited control are too likely to exploit their employees, to subject them to unsafe and sometimes deplorable working conditions, and to work their employees too many hours with too little pay.
Employers from Biblical times have ignored Biblical directives to treat employees, even slaves, with fairness and compassion, and to share with them the fruits of their labor.
For the years that I have been involved, the greatest value of unions, greater than gains in wages, has been the collective strength of unions to enter meaningful compromise contracts that give union employees reasonable expectations of conditions they will work under for determined periods of time. Most important, these contracts provide a level of job protection, a process that prevents an unreasonable, temperamental, vindictive or prejudiced employer or management underling from firing any employee at any time for any reason or no reason.
Our early Southern employers, unfettered by unions, perpetuated slavery to create their wealth. Our early Northern and Eastern employers, also untrammeled by unions, ran sweatshops, placed women garment workers in firetraps, caused underground coal miners to work in deathtraps and inhale coal dust until they couldn’t breathe, and got rich on child labor.
That is why we have and need unions. Union advocacy has certainly improved standards of living for its own members. Such advocacy has also created better wages for millions of non-union workers who can enjoy the resultant leveling of all wages and piggyback effect caused by union rates.
As, or more, important, union advocacy has brought about safer working conditions, has reduced racial and other discrimination, has reduced sexual exploitation, molestation and other harassment in the workplace, and has given countless employees a process for redress in instances of clearly unjust termination, sanction and serious discipline.
Anyone who works for a living, whether or not a union member, whether or not a union is even in place for them to join, ought to be glad and appreciative that unions exist in this country.
On a totally different subject matter, our nation, its president and Congress face a critical military decision of potentially huge consequences. The situation in Syria (and all surrounding countries) is serious and scary.
Our Congressman, Rick Nolan, has stepped out forcefully in opposition of overt military action at this time. He does so, even though it may not be the expedient political thing to do. It will likely place him in an awkward position, bucking heads with his own president and Democratic Party leaders.
Although Nolan quite certainly did not spend five years of business activity in the Middle East, thinking it to be preparation for Congressional service, the fact that he lived and experienced that actual Middle East political climate for a significant period certainly gives him insight and perspective that the rest of us, including office holders, simply do not have.
I’m reminded of two things. One is the generalization that whenever you are in real dilemma as to whether to do a thing or not do a thing, you are usually better off not doing it ... or stated more simply, ”If in doubt, don’t.”
Second, I’m reminded of, in some respects, similar questions just before our untoward military incursion into Iraq. There, our hastily publicized “reasoning” was to chase the elusive Bin Laden and to eradicate the non-existent “weapons of mass destruction.”
I remember then that the first public official I heard speak out against that war-mongering, economy-crushing ego trip was our own then-8th District Congressman Jim Oberstar.
Is good history repeating itself?