What Happened to Labor Day?

A young person asked me not long ago -- only half in jest -- whether Labor Day was named in honor of natural childbirth.

Most young people today have no memory of a time when Walter Reuther of the UAW and John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers were household names, when presidents jawboned labor to prevent agreements from causing wage-price inflation, when productivity gains pushed wages up, and when more than a third of the American workforce was unionized.

Now fewer than 8 percent of America's private sector workers are in unions, median wage gains have fallen far behind productivity gains, and for most of us Labor Day means a long weekend.

What happened? Some say it started in the early 80s after Ronald Reagan fired the nation's air-traffic controllers for striking -- something they had no legal right to do -- and thereby legitimized a wave of corporate union busting. Others blame it on a more pervasive "greed is good" aggressiveness that engulfed corporate suites starting right about then.

There's no question that, ever since, and with ever greater alacrity, companies have fired workers for trying to form unions, even though that's illegal, and have used or threatened to use permanent replacements if workers go on strike -- which is legal but was rare before the 80s.

But don't blame Ronald Reagan or corporate greed. Blame us -- you and me. You see, starting about 30 years ago and with increasing efficiency, technologies have given us consumers a world of choice -- low priced goods and services that often depend on low wages here and elsewhere.

Four-lane federal highways and long-haul trucks linking non-unionized manufacturers in the South to the rest of us. Container ships and cargo planes linking us to foreign producers. Big-box retailers using computers to find the best deals anywhere around the world. And now the Internet letting us find the best deals for ourselves from anywhere, too.

In other words, we as a nation have traded off lower priced goods and services, in place of a unionized workforce with the bargaining clout to get higher wages. So now, a lot of us get good consumer deals and lousy paychecks.

No one trumpeted this choice. It's happened gradually. But is it the right choice? That's what we ought to be asking ourselves -- at least once a year, on Labor Day.

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