Written by Jeannine Bell
“I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night….” As I write this, the strains of that my favorite old labor song, Joe Hill, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8Kxq9uFDes&feature=related are playing in the background. I am trying to begin Labor Day this way because it strikes me that I (and many in the rest of the country) have moved far from the roots of this holiday to honor the American worker. Labor Day has become known for sales and, even worse, a federal holiday where many still work and go to school. My university, for example, holds classes on Labor Day. How different the approach toward labor than when I was growing up! I lived until I was twelve in Detroit (a union town if there ever was one) and school did not start (and teachers did not begin classroom work) until after Labor Day.
“…the copper bosses killed you, Joe.” Organized labor is struggling. In 1983, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the union membership rate—the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of a union—was 20.1 percent. In 2009, the union membership rate was 12.3 percent. The recession hasn’t helped organized labor either. Between 2008 and 2009, the number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions declined by 771,000 to 15.3 million, largely reflecting the overall drop in employment due to the recession. In addition, lack enforcement of labor laws has allowed management to effectively resist efforts to unionize workers. Though organized labor has had its problems over the years (see e.g., Paul Frymer’s book on this, Black and Blue: African Americans, the Labor Movement, and the Decline of the Democratic Party (2007)) for many, wage concessions achieved by labor unions have been a route to the middle class.
“…said Joe, ‘I didn’t die…’” Joe Hill is not a dirge for organized labor. In real life, the game is not over yet. The Employee Free Choice Act of 2009 http://themiddleclass.org/bill/employee-free-choice-act-2009?gclid=CNCx4Njr8qMCFdj75wodkjuN4A may be taken up by Senate in the fall. This Act, supported by the Obama administration, would make it far easier for unions to organize. Maybe in this we will see if the spirit of Joe Hill lives on…