As labor's power wanes, Labor Day's meaning fades

Labor Day, like Memorial Day, began with a much more solemn purpose than as a bookend to summer.

In 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed the hurriedly passed legislation after his iron-fisted response to a railroad strike led to violence and death. But the new holiday failed to win him the forgiveness of workers.

Samuel L. Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, called it a day for workers not only to put down their tools but to "touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it."

The picnicking that now typifies Labor Day was how workers marked the end of a day of rousing union speeches in parks and town centers.

Not only has this holiday — the first Monday in September — lost its power, so has the labor movement in this country.

Though the Pullman strike of 1893 and Cleveland's use of federal troops to break it sent the union movement into remission, it regained strength during the Depression, and by the 1950s almost half the workers in the United States were members of unions. That number dwindled to 12.3 percent in 2009.

The reasons for the decline of union membership — and the decline of union political and economic power — are plain:

The shift of manufacturing jobs overseas and to the South and West, which do not have strong union traditions.

•The influx into the workforce of women, who often work part-time; immigrants, who may be fearful of deportation; and younger workers, who are unlikely to have a union member in their family.

•The role of the federal government in addressing job issues unions used to negotiate.

•And the new emphasis on the quality of family's work/life balance, with issues that can be difficult to address at the bargaining table.

I am a member of a union, and I inherited my dedication to unions from my father-in-law, who, oddly, belonged to management at the General Motors plant for which he worked for 40 years.

Because his employer made sure that salaried workers were appeased with the same or better benefits as those negotiated by the United Auto Workers for the hourly employees (and, to be fair, because of his own frugalilty), he was able to pay off his house, put four boys through college without borrowing a dime and leave his wife in good stead after his death.

In other words, he, like the rest of the American workforce, benefited from the advances won by unions. Though he had no union membership card in his wallet, he recognized what unions had meant to his family.

If all unions had ever done for the American worker was create the oasis we now call the weekend — not to mention the eight-hour day, paid vacations, health insurance and pensions — it would be reason enough to keep Labor Day holy each year.

But I am afraid the next generation of workers will think of Labor Day only as the day the pool closes and the football season begins.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her e-mail is

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