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Forum editorial: Like it or not, unions were vital

Elsewhere on this page an advocate for right-to-work laws goes after organized labor with a vengeance. He tries to make the case that observance of Labor Day, today, is about everyone who works, not unions.

In 2014, that may be. But whether one likes unions or not (and there is plenty to dislike), the impetus for Labor Day – for setting aside a day to celebrate work and workers – was born in the labor movement of decades past. The holiday certainly was not proposed or endorsed in its early years in the boardrooms of business and industry. Indeed, the labor movement itself was an inevitable response to the abuses of working people by employers – in particular in the 1920s and 1930s, but going back as far as the 1886 Haymarket Square massacre of workers in Chicago. The growth of unions came about because working conditions were horrific, wages were piteously low and worker rights were either unheard of or routinely trampled.

Unions changed the equation. The union movement spawned child labor laws, the 40-hour work week, factory safety regulations, retirement benefits, and a decent wage for an honest day’s work.

That being said, history also shows that as labor unions grew stronger, they corrupted the movement they created. The employers’ greed they railed against was no different from the agenda of union bosses, so much so that organized labor and organized crime often were seen as one. Additionally, unrealistic union demands, lengthy strikes and forced concessions to unions contributed to the decline of American manufacturing.

The historical record contributed to hostility against unions, and to their precipitous loss of membership. But history also shows that the work of unions resulted in vastly improved workplace conditions that employees and employers today take for granted.

The labor movement is a shadow of its former self. A case can be made that unions guaranteed their own demise because the workplace standards championed by organized labor are routine today. Thus, today’s employees, who are not acquainted with labor history, see no need for union affiliation.

But whatever one’s beliefs or biases about the union movement, Labor Day is an appropriate time to be honest about the history of organized labor – its lasting accomplishments and its failures.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.