Strong labor unions still necessary

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By DON VOWELL

Even though I am no longer a card-carrying member of the labor force I celebrated Labor Day.  We can be proud that on Feb. 21, 1887 Oregon became the first state to declare Labor Day as a legal holiday.  The idea didn’t originate here, but the legislation did.  The general condition of America’s labor force in 2013 indicates need for more maintenance.

From Webster’s Dictionary comes definitions of labor as simply manual labor or work for wages, also as labor unions collectively.  Labor may not be under attack, but it is languishing.

Labor’s share of the nation’s income has stayed fairly stable since World War II.  If Labor’s share is simply wages, salaries, and benefits, Capital’s share of national income is messier.  It includes corporate profits, small business income, partnerships, rental and lease income, interest on bonds, deposits, and loans, and more.  Just since 2000 Labor’s percentage of all income has dropped about six percent.

Sometimes problems are so huge and complex that they cannot be laid to one cause.  This diminution of Labor’s financial status can’t simply be blamed on wealthy Americans’ seemingly limitless greed.

After incautious investing caused a catastrophic financial industry meltdown in 2007-2008, investors and corporations may have swung back toward too much caution.

Robert Samuelson cited in a recent column the broader theories about Labor’s shriveling share of national income.  It is not just an American phenomenon.  Globalization, new technologies, and weaker unions were the principal causes named.

Globalization creates downward pressure on wages and the price of goods.  New technologies actually eliminate many jobs.  On Labor Day I was thinking more about unions.

The thing heard most frequently from reasonable people is something like “Unions did a lot of good and necessary work in the past, but are no longer needed and, in fact, might be doing more harm than good.”

Here in Oregon there is a lot of bad press about public employee’s unions.  One simple explanation is that everything you hear is supplied by media outlets owned by Capital, not Labor.  That might unintentionally or intentionally color the way a story is presented.

Unions are made up of wage-earners who organize into groups hoping that combined resources and solidarity of voice will help them negotiate contracts with management (Capital) and make themselves heard in regard to pending legislation.  They have met with some success.

Rather than trying to drag public employees’ benefits down wouldn’t it be better to instead fight so that all wage-earners could make a living wage?  The PERS retirement funding question must be put to bed.  There are some obvious and well-documented instances of sweetheart deals and unsustainable retirement packages, but those have been addressed, and the average PERS retiree receives just that: average pension.  Outside of that, there is value in having Oregon honoring a signed contract.  If it is public knowledge that Oregon will default on the terms of a contract just to meet shifting financial needs, what sensible, qualified employee would work here?

It is my belief that America’s future would be strengthened by stronger labor unions.  Special interest PACs don’t serve the same broad base.  Gun rights, environmental, abortion rights, and even political party groups have narrow interests serving their own needs. The group that includes people who work for a living is a group of all interests and, if organized, could support legislation that serves the many, not the few.

(Don Vowell lives in Keizer.)

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