Labor and other neglected days of honor

Out of the bitter labor-management conflicts of the 1880s and 1890s evolved what is known today as Labor Day, passed into law in 1894.

But it has gone the way of several other holidays, honored more for its shopping opportunities than recognition of the working people. Few spend Memorial Day honoring the defenders of the realm.

Presidents Washington and Lincoln were denigrated by combining them into one generic President’s Day in which we have the liberty to celebrate presidents of our choice, perhaps Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge.

Halloween is different. Everybody celebrates Halloween, mostly the children, the parents and the candy merchants. It outplays Memorial Day, Presidents Day and Labor Day combined. It’s a disgrace.

In every Labor Day, we are honoring a smaller and smaller percentage of union employees. In 1983, we had around 18 million organized and in 2017 it was under 15 million and sliding. Even though unemployment is the lowest it’s been in years, the forces working against labor continue to hammer down membership.

The transformation of the American economy has sent many manufacturing jobs – the easiest to organize – overseas where low labor costs have decimated the competition. Replacing these jobs in America have been white collars but white collars don’t organize. We have more clerks but clerks don’t organize. Etc. etc.

The ability of unions to function has been impaired by state and federal laws. States pass “right-to-work” laws to break unions. The Taft-Hartley Law of 1947 had a great curbing effect.

With fewer and fewer union members, government has taken the initiative in mandating benefits that were once a part of the bargaining process. This intervention has created new problems because one size doesn’t fit our economic diversity.

A standard minimum wage is hardly suitable for hundreds of job classifications in 50 states. Because it isn’t bargained by local units, many inequities exist. The same for other federal initiatives.

Union members are rewarded for their membership with higher wages and better fringe benefits than the unorganized employees. Just about all of the folks who work two jobs to support their families are unorganized. There seems to be no light at the end of this tunnel.

Last year, a group of North Dakotans worked on a ballot measure that would have established $15 as the hourly minimum wage. It put the fear of democracy in employers.

The measure didn’t get on the ballot for a couple of reasons. For many people, $15 was too great a leap from $7.25. The $15 would have been appropriate for some underpaid employees but the not the store clerks in small towns.

This issue is not dead. As the salary gap between workers and management continues to spread, pressure will mount for something like wage boards to negotiate suitable minimums for various classes of workers. Short of that, another statewide minimum wage proposal will be on the horizon.

Labor has had a difficult time getting traction in North Dakota because its numbers are small and management organizations have hogged the political turf. And the large farm population has been wary of a close relationship with labor.

The unions joined the Nonpartisan League in the 1916 campaign. When the League got control of the Legislature in 1918, it rewarded wage-earners with the Workers Compensation Bureau, regulations for working women and regulation of the mining industry.

While farm and union leaders saw the value in cooperation, farmers never really felt at ease in the relationship. Glenn Talbott, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, saw the need for unity so his organization held several farmer-labor conferences to bridge the gap.

North Dakota has not done well by its wage-earners, something to ponder this Labor Day season.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.