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Published: Monday, 9/3/2001 - Updated: 2 years ago

The fruits of their labors

Here's a Labor Day trivia question for you. What state became the first to make Labor Day a legal holiday? Answer: Oregon, 114 years ago.

The labor movement, begun in the middle of the last century, has perhaps a little more to celebrate this year than last, certainly more than a 114th birthday in Oregon.

In recent years the movement has been eclipsed by a melange of national commitment to me-firstism, the changing nature of work, more and more automation, relaxed tariffs, and flagging public sympathy.

If the 1997 strike by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters' against UPS proved anything about organized labor, it is the pendulum nature of political, economic, and social change. The company had banked on public support. But the strike became a symbol to thousands of Americans of corporate America's frequent unfairness.

Many Americans, tired of being downsized, part-timed, and shorted on benefits, threw their support to the union, one of whose priorities was to cut the number of part-time jobs UPS had slated.

At the same time, labor unions such as the United Auto Workers have shown they can work closely with a company, as well as strike it. Witness the calm with which the Toledo Jeep local handled its current contract with Chrysler. The UAW showed how a union looks out for itself even as it looks out for its hometown and its employer as well.

Whether you think labor unions are the cat's whiskers or its tail, it doesn't hurt to take a look at their gifts to America.

Besides issues of job security, unions have brought to the fore tangible notions such as the living wage, limited work hours, expanded fringe benefits, and the concept of seniority. They have pioneered safety measures and have given both workers and managers the idea that there must be a civilized way of handling grievances.

Perhaps nowhere can most Americans more appreciate the nation's labor unions than in the area of fringe benefits, most of which were birthed during World War II as a way to increase work rewards while observing the federal ceiling on wage increases.

Unions have helped move companies from medical, life, accident, and disability insurance to dental and eye care and prescription reimbursements. Employers have tossed in, as well, stock purchase plans and 401(k) retirement savings plans and annuities, again often with union prodding. Unions also had major roles in influencing legislation that created Medicare and Medicaid.

To be the beneficiary of any of these plans without giving a nod of thanks to unions for their contributions is to be an ingrate.

Currently, union membership is at an all-time low, and unions have had neither the will nor the resources to be as enterprising as corporations in expanding abroad. Nor are they made as welcome by third-world strongmen, whose power is assured to the extent it is denied their people.

This has, unfortunately, put labor in the corner of trade restrictions. But the pendulum is bound to swing here as well.

Labor Day, with summer vacations behind and the new school year ahead, always seems to signal new beginnings.

This year, as in years past, it behooves all union members, and the non-joining fellow travelers in the world of work, to reflect, among other things, on the high standard of living we enjoy in this country, and on unions' role in getting it for us all.

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