Labor Day, 2011

The long Labor Day weekend that begins, for many, as soon as they can leave work today traditionally marks the end of the summer season — the bookend to Memorial Day, which signals the beginning of summer.

Most recent years, it has been an opportunity for barbecues, camping trips and outdoor activities, with little thought given to the holiday’s historic origins.

But Labor Day 2011 is different. It’s been decades since there was such widespread political controversy related to labor issues and labor unions.

The most prominent of these disputes has been in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker proposed, and the Republican-controlled Legislature adopted, several measures to curtail the power of public-employees unions and required government employees to contribute more to their retirement funds.

That legislation notoriously led to Democratic lawmakers fleeing the state last spring in a failed attempt to halt the measures. That was followed by a series of mostly unsuccessful attempts this summer to recall state senators of both parties.

The dispute has hardly disappeared in the Dairy State. A large union parade and rally was planned for Thursday night in Madison, with calls to let Walker know the fight is not over.

A scheduled Labor Day parade in the paper-mill city of Wausau stirred controversy when union organizers announced that no Republicans would be allowed to participate. They changed their minds when Wausau’s mayor reminded them the city was footing the bill for crowd control and other expenses and said the unions would have to pay all those costs if they were to exclude people based on their political affiliation.

The labor disputes aren’t limited to Wisconsin, however. In Ohio, legislation similar to Wisconsin’s has sparked a ballot issue to get the Ohio measures overturned. New York has adopted less-contentious, but still important new rules to require public employees to pay more toward their retirement and benefits. Even the liberal New York Times said such changes are needed.

Meanwhile, the National Labor Relations Board under President Barack Obama has sparked its own political battles with controversial decisions on things like Boeing’s plan to build a new aircraft plant in right-to-work North Carolina, and rules related to union elections.

For millions of Americans, the issue now isn’t union representation or benefits on the job, but whether they have jobs at all. The unemployment rate still stands at 9.1 percent, and some 3.7 million workers are receiving unemployment benefits. Millions more have stopped looking for work, or are working in part-time jobs.

Moreover, the labor unrest of 2011 doesn’t compare with that in the early days of the labor movement, when strikes and violent retaliation from business and government were commonplace, and workers fought for some ability to hold jobs that weren’t entirely at the whim of company owners.

It’s also worth noting that Colorado was among the first five states in the country to declare Labor Day a state holiday, doing so in the late 1880s.

The modern labor battles are varied, with different issues and political ramifications in each state, as well as at the national level. But they all share one thing: At a time of declining government resources and decreasing union membership in the private sector, they are testing both the rights of workers and the limits of union power.

Circa 2011, that is a public debate worth having. Too bad that so often it occurs only with rancor, political gamesmanship and over-heated rhetoric.


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