Scott MacKay Commentary: Labor Day 2014, Tough Times For Unions, Workers

Aug 29, 2014

It’s Labor Day, time to celebrate workers and labor unions. For this Labor Day  RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says it’s  a tough time for workers and organized labor.

As another Labor Day comes and goes, Rhode Island's economy remains sluggish. The unemployment rate is one of the highest in the nation.

In Rhode Island, Labor Day wasn’t always just another day off. It wasn’t always just an excuse for a last  summer day at the beach.  Or a backyard cookout.

A century ago, Labor Day was a time of worker activism. In 1893, after years of agitation by workers and union leaders, the Rhode Island General Assembly established the first Monday in September as a legal, but not a paid, holiday.

The first Labor Day celebration in Rhode Island drew thousands of workers to Providence for a parade sponsored by the Rhode Island Central Labor Union, a predecessor to the state AFL-CIO.

An estimated 10,000 people watched as the parade strutted through downtown and jammed the city wharves off Dyer Street at the end of the parade to take a steamboat to Rocky Point on Warwick Neck, where the festivities continued with a big clambake.

That account comes from research by Scott Molloy, a University of Rhode Island professor and expert on labor history in our state. From those modest beginnings, Labor Day has evolved into the modern end –of-summer long weekend. No longer do workers gather in huge parades, but there are reminders of the significance of this day. For example, admission is free today at the Museum of Work and Culture, the instructive labor history museum in Woonsocket.

In recent years, workers from Providence to Pasadena have endured tough times. The net worth of American workers has declined. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that median household net worth dropped by more than $5,000 over the last decade, a decline of about 7 percent.

We have become a state and nation of haves, have nots and have mores. One family, The Walton family that owns the Walmart retailing chain, has a combined wealth greater than the combined wealth of the bottom 42 percent of the entire population of the United States, reports Robert Reich, the former U.S. Labor secretary.

By the middle of the 20th Century, Rhode Island’s manufacturing companies provided thousands of jobs that came with benefits. About a third of workers belonged to unions, a number that has declined to about 17 percent today and far less in the private sector.

While such public employees as teachers, cops and firefighters are represented by unions, almost no employees in such huge private employment pools as retailing and fast food benefit  from collective bargaining.

It is difficult to quantify the malaise facing American workers, says Molloy. Changes in the economy and global competition have hurt low-skill workers. So has the decline of private sector union membership.

Companies that worked with unions have become much more confrontational in the past two decades. Labor leaders grouse that the federal worker protections that fueled union growth in the 20th Century have eroded to the point of being almost meaningless in the private sector.

The loss of private sector workers has split the labor movement, says Molloy. Workers without union benefits see public employees, paid with tax dollars, earning decent wages. ``People without unions know they pay for unionized public employees and they don’t like it,’’ says Molloy.

And some politicians are ``whipping up public sentiment’’ against unions and collective bargaining, says Molloy. Still, he says recent union elections by poorly paid day-care workers in Rhode Island and across the country show that people still seek union representation.

``It seems that if people have an opportunity for collective bargaining and they are not doing well,’’ says Molloy. ``They are likely to vote in a union.’’

Molloy may be right. But organized labor is unlikely to make a comeback without some serious changes in federal laws that protect workers. A point to ponder on the day we honor working men and women.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at