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Labor Day thoughts

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As millions of Americans go about the Labor Day weekend brought to them in the name of the working men and women of America, one wonders if much thought is given, especially in a right-to-work state like Idaho, to the debt owed to those labor pioneers who worked so hard to establish benefits we all take for granted: the eight hour work day and the 40 hour work week; overtime pay; health benefits; retirement plans to supplement Social Security; the passage of laws outlawing child labor and laws ensuring safe working environments are the priority not productivity.

Its doubtful much thought is given or thanks offered. In part this is due to a relentless campaign over many years by Republicans to portray labor as “greedy unions” that would rather see a business go broke if it cannot meet the union’s grasping effort to get paid more for doing less.

There’s greed in abundance, but today it is almost wholly monopolized by over-paid, unaccountable corporate executives who often install strategies that fail but still receive outlandish compensation for their failure. The failure usually reveals a woeful undervaluing of employees who are treated as “overhead,” not as people trying hard to do their best. Constant cutting of “over-head”can tempoprarily improve share price and/or provide the façade of a better return on investment number. But its short-term thinking that sacrifices the future for the present.

In past years, the gap between the average union worker’s paycheck and the company ceo once was 10:1. Today it is more likely 100 to one and growing. It’s at a point now where it is excessive enough to be an issue in the presidential campaign.

The decline in union membership is well-known, as is the proliferation of right-to-work laws which forbid the forced payment of union dues in an organized shop. There’s no argument that there was a time in the late 50’s when unions were their own worst enemies. Public disdain grew either because of corrupt union leaders or strikes supporting demands for excessive pay increases, or suspected “socialist” tendencies.

I once was a member of United Steelworkers of America local 338, the union shop at Kaiser Aluminum’s huge Trentwood rolling mill. I worked there the summer of 1965 to earn extra money before heading east for college.

Initially I was assigned to the box shop stacking lumber that came through a saw cut to the correct dimensions to make pallets for shipping coils and other products. During the afternoon break a union “brother” mosied over and said, “Slow down, kid. You’re working too hard.”

I was dumbfounded since I was easily keeping up. “But I’m doing fine,” I protested. The brother then got blunt and snarly. “Listen, kid, the company contract says that’s a two-person job. Your showing one person can do it is denying another person a job. Slow down or else. .”

Welcome to what’s called “featherbedding.” Not wanting to find out what the “or else” meant, I slowed down. The next day there were two of us during the work. In those days Kaiser was selling every pound of aluminum it produced at a handsome profit.

When the economy started to slide with inflation and interest rates rising, demand declining, and profits disappearing, Kaiser began to hemorrhage and a long slow struggle to right the ship began. To their credit the Kaiser unions recognized inefficiencies had to be removed, that contract niceities had to be sacrificed for maintenance of necessities.

Despite wage and benefit concessions for future profit sharing,eventually Kaiser went into bankruptcy.

The idea of labor/management partnership though has survived and many unions today work closely with management to maintain solid profitable production while providing a safe working environment and a decent benefits.

Unfortunately, state Democratic parties everywhere have become enamoured of Labor’s major legislative priority—raising a state’s minimum wage. While Idaho’s is one of the lowest in the nation, imposing an unrealistic, unsustainable number on businesses in Idaho is not the answer.

Idaho Democrats should take note of the fact that the four states that most recently increased their minimum wage did so through a ballot initiative. That’s not going to happen in Idaho.

The Idaho Democratic party would be better served by promoting a woman’s right to “equal pay for equal work.”

So what is Labor’s top legislative agenda for the next session: a law that mandates an Idaho employer has to provide a one hour lunch break for employees! In 2015 an Idaho employer can deny an employee his or her lunch break and force them to work eight or ten hours without the lunch.? Simply unbelievable.

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