We owe Monday's holiday to the efforts of organized labor. In my family, the yin and yang of unions was ever-present. My father, the supervisor of a furniture warehouse in Philadelphia and thus part of management, was bedevilled by the Teamsters union. It imposed men on the payroll whom he often found sleeping or missing, and it segregated work so that truck loaders couldn't be asked to sweep the floor during downtime. When he complained to the union, he was met with veiled threats of violence. Eventually, excessive wage demands drove the family-owned business into bankruptcy and left my dad without a job. He had worked there for more than 40 years.

My wife's father was a tool and die maker at RCA in Camden, New Jersey, and a union man through-and-through. When Local 103 went on strike for better wages and working conditions in 1936, management called in the police and he was among hundreds who were thrown in jail. Against this backdrop, you can understand why the subject of unions was a taboo topic at our family events.


Today, unions have become an endangered species. First organized after the Civil War, their purpose was simple and two-pronged: higher wages and better working conditions. In 1890 in industrialized Chicago, the weekly household wages were a meager $5, or a little more than $125 in today's money. It was nearly impossible to support a family on $5, but it was a buyer's market. As immigrants streamed into the country, they created an almost unlimited labor pool, and they were just one more commodity to buy at the cheapest price.

Tellingly, this was also the era of the Gilded Age, when the captains of industry were awash in cash and building their magnificent mansions on New York's Fifth Avenue and in Newport, Rhode Island. Unions thought their members deserved some of this hard-won profit.

Unions also sought better working conditions. In 1900, the 60-hour week was common and many tasks were hazardous. That year about 30,000 deaths and 1 million injuries occurred in industrial jobs. This statistic becomes more onerous when we realize that 18 percent of the workers were children between the ages of 10 and 15. A fire ravaged New York City's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911, killing 123 women and 23 men. They died because managers had locked the doors to the stairwells to prevent unsanctioned breaks and pilfering.

Management did not give in easily to the formation of unions. The early years were marked by much bloodshed as hired thugs and police beat striking workers. The great B&O railroad strike of 1877 began after wages were cut twice in one year. In Baltimore, when the troops of the 6th Regiment felt threatened by a mob of angry rail workers, they shot and killed 10 and wounded 25.

Nearly a third of U.S. workers belonged to a union in 1965. Today, as a result of our shrinking manufacturing base and the allure of "right-to-work" states, only one in 10 workers is a member. The unions contributed to their own demise by making unreasonable salary, benefits and pension demands, tolerating corruption, and calling strikes all too eagerly. For management, unions were always a detriment to unfettered profit-making for themselves and stockholders.

The right-to-work laws prohibit unions from requiring membership at a place of employment or obliging workers to pay dues or fees. Of course, without the benefit of members and dues, there can be no union and no paid union officials to negotiate contracts. "Right-to-work" is a euphemism and akin to calling death "a negative patient outcome." The right-to-work phrase should be more correctly followed by "for lower pay and fewer benefits than if we were unionized." But that battle has already been lost.

If one believes that events in history follow a pendulum's path, then we might yet experience the resurgence of the union movement. With the top 1 percent now possessing 40 percent of the nation's wealth, we live in a second Gilded Age. Both political parties talk of growing income inequality, and the service industries continue to push back on the need for a national minimum wage. The governors of Wisconsin and New Jersey have gone on the attack against the hard-won benefits and rights enjoyed by state employee unions, including collective bargaining. The pot has begun to boil.

Happy Labor Day!

Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears Fridays. Email him at fjbatavick@gmail.com.