By State Representative Rob Nosse
Happy Labor Day! Unlike the rest of the world that celebrates workers and their unions on May 1, the United States celebrates Labor Day on the first Monday of September.
The first Labor Day parade took place on September 5, 1882, when 10,000 workers took unpaid time off work to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City.
In 1887, New York was the first state to introduce Labor Day holiday legislation, but Oregon was the first state to pass it. By 1894, almost thirty state legislatures had followed suit. It took a tragedy to make Labor Day an officially recognized federal holiday.
Shortly after the US Army and US Marshals Service killed two striking workers during the Pullman Railcar Strike in 1894, Congress made Labor Day a national holiday with President Grover Cleveland’s urging as a gesture toward trade unionists.
Those that know me well know I am fond of saying solidarity is the only thing that has changed anything. A union is legal solidarity at work and unions have, without a doubt, made the lives of workers better in this state and country.
Since the 1980s the labor movement has been through some tough times. Attacks on labor started in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan “busted” the air traffic controller’s strike and their union and signaled to the private sector it was acceptable to aggressively target union workers and their contracts.
Public Sector workers, who are granted the “right” to collectively bargain state by state or municipality by municipality, have also seen their unions come under attack from state legislatures in Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio, once bastions of the labor movement, albeit with some successes and failures.
Despite the US Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME, at least in this state, the public sector labor movement is still going strong.
I wish more workers, particularly those in the private sector, had an easier time creating an organization to represent them. Unions have lifted up workers in all sorts of trades and jobs in manufacturing, healthcare and retail, creating good jobs with decent pay and benefits.
While it would be too simplistic to say our current wealth disparity and unchecked corporate power is based solely on a lack of union power, it certainly plays a part.
At the height of the labor movement in the late 1940s and 50s, one out of every three workers in the United States belonged to a labor union. In that now bygone era, a white male-headed household could be supported by one worker, CEO wages were not so ridiculously high when compared to the lowest paid worker in the shop or company, and taxes, both personal and corporate, were more progressive.
Now, union membership hovers at ten and a half percent across the United States. New York and Hawaii have the highest density of union membership at a little over twenty percent of all workers, compared to the Carolinas having the lowest, hovering around two percent of all workers. Oregon ranks at around fifteen percent of all workers having a union, and would probably be lower if the public sector was excluded from the count.
I am hopeful that resurgence for the labor movement is coming. Polls show rising popularity for the idea. A good economy and a tight labor market give unions the ability to drive a harder bargain and make gains more likely. That being said, a true recovery for labor as a force in our economy will require a strengthening of federal laws. Something like that has not happened in the United States since Richard Nixon was president.
Congratulations to the workers at OHSU who recently gained a good contract after threatening to strike. The same will hopefully be true for workers at Kaiser Permanente and Fred Meyer, where strikes are looming. Burgerville’s employees are using periodic strikes as a tool to make a job in the fast food industry more economically sustainable for workers.
This Labor Day, I hope you will join me in wishing our local unions success in their fight for economic justice.