Labor Day Essay – Ernie Fazio
January 8, 2007
This piece is merely one man’s opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the LIMBA Board, EMF
I had the honor and privilege of serving as an official in a labor union when I was 24 years old. It was a low level position to be sure, but it gave me the opportunity to see how a real labor union operates. I was impressed with the knowledge and professionalism of the others, particularly the president of the union.
The labor movement defined the new expectations of wages and working conditions in America. It has been argued that the labor movement created the vast middle class that most of us in America brag about. I agree with that opinion. Some will say that industry itself created the middle class because as management sought out innovation to improve productivity, they created the means to pay higher wages. There is some truth in that, but we know that business does not increase wages just because they are making money. The equal truth is that wages go up when there is negotiating strength in the work force. Management has an ever increasing need for productivity, and part of that should ultimately benefit the labor force.
The symbiosis between a good union and good management is much more peaceful than some would have us believe. In other words unions are neither the enemy nor the friend of business. It is more like a component of the process. As one union president put it, “We must be mindful of the needs of viability and profitability of the company while we balance our own needs.”
Today we are several generations removed from the dark days of labor when labor leaders were jailed, or fired upon by goon squads, because they violated the property rights of industry. The argument was then that the labor force had no right to organize and disrupt the operations of business. Of course any employee could withhold his service and leave the job, and as the conventional wisdom stated, when employers lost enough workers they may increase wages to keep employees. And that theoretically is how labor could advance. It didn’t happen. Wages only advanced when the unions could organize a broad strike.
In places like Mexico, we are still relying on business to enhance labor advancement, but Mexico is not at all sympathetic to labor unions. As a result the people are as poor as ever and in some people’s opinion, worse off than they were before NAFTA, when we out-sourced vast amounts of manufacturing jobs to that country.
A working middle class is absolutely essential to a functioning democracy. And organized labor is the key to maintaining a working middle class. As long as the working population is at or near poverty, they do not have the means to participate in democracy. They do not have the time, energy, or the money it takes to be part of the discussion. For those of us that think of ourselves as middle class, I tell you we are threatened. As our numbers grow smaller our power is also smaller. The remaining powerful interests are business and government. When the middle class is sufficiently diminished then the result is fascism. Fascism has been defined as when business runs the government. In case you haven’t been looking, that transition is taking place in America.
The symbiosis of business, Government and labor is not inherently evil. These forces are constantly in need of being balanced. When labor was too strong, there were aberrations that were not considered good for the country. The same is true of business and government. America’s growth and prosperity relies on each of these entities being roughly in parity, when it comes to wielding power. This process is, or should be, always fluid. The struggle for justice and fairness is never ending, and in the end we all are richer for the process. If any of the forces become overly dominant, then democracy itself is threatened.
Having respect for all contributors that help make this democracy succeed is important, but today I want to tip my hat to all the good people in the labor movement and those people whose hands we shake that are calloused and hardened by their honest work.
God Bless America’s working people