Labor Day And Workers’ Unions

Larry Price
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Wednesday - September 16, 2009
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For those who study labor relations, Labor Day is a special day for a couple of reasons. Samuel Gompers, founder and long-time president of American Federation of Labor, said it best: “Labor Day is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race or nation. It is a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the country.”

Actually, the idea of a national Labor Day holiday was an act of reconciliation after the bitter Pullman Strike 100 years ago. President Grover Cleveland signed it into law in 1894, just days after 12,000 federal troops, who he had ordered to Chicago, broke the famous Pullman strike. The 1892 presidential campaign took place in the clutches of a contentious steelworkers’strike in Pittsburgh, featuring beatings and bloody gun battles between workers and Pinkerton detectives.

Pullman was the name of a railroad sleeping car. Management laid off one-third of its workers and cut wages 25 percent. The 3,300 remaining Pullman workers organized a union and went on strike. Nationwide, 125,000 railroad workers joined in with a boycott, refusing to handle trains with Pullman cars. The Pullman strike of 1894 was a national and local calamity. (

So, we have a holiday for workers to celebrate. There is little to celebrate when people are losing their jobs and retirement savings dry up, incomes are flat and any improvement in wages and benefits for the immediate future are slim to none.

Public reaction to labor unions is one of the longest-running trends by The Gallup Poll. The public perception of unions, both public and private, is vital to their success at the bargaining table. The first Gallup Poll found that 72 percent of Americans approved of the unions, with only 20 percent disapproving. That all changed after Congress passed several bailout packages for ailing U.S. companies. In point of fact, most research found that a substantial segment of Americans blame the auto unions for the industry’s problems. The polls are quite clear on one point worthy of recognition: 43 percent of Americans surveyed want unions to have less influence in the United States, with only 25 percent wanting unions to have more influence. And sitting in Congress’s lap is the Employee Free Choice Act, a proposal to significantly change collective bargaining laws, that is still under consideration.

Here in Hawaii, the negotiators missed an historic occasion to win some points with the general public. Unfortunately, they still seem to prefer the sign-waving tactic in front of the state Capitol to win public support. And to make it worse, a couple of elected officials aspiring to higher political office joined in, trying to use the spectacle to enhance their political ambition. How old-fashioned can your thinking be to stand on a street corner and wave a sign that says “No Layoffs”?

So what’s happening right now? It’s probably a good bet that at least a couple of the unions are ready to reach a settlement, but they don’t want to go first. Even in the private sector they have a protocol that mandates the acceptable sequence: The biggest and strongest agree first, and the others follow. That way, the weaker unions don’t end up with a weaker agreement. Said another way, all the public unions are waiting for the HGEA to agree first, then they will follow.

Maybe next year will be a better Labor Day for everyone.

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