About This Holiday — Thoughts on Labor Day 2012
Today is Labor Day.
To millions of Americans, this day symbolizes the end of summer and the start of football season. It’s also a great excuse to hold a backyard barbeque.
But Labor Day is something much more meaningful. It’s a day for all of us to recognize and applaud the working class who built this country with their caloused hands, leathered skin, and broken backs — and who now strive to ensure that our society remains vibrant. This day serves as a reminder that the American middle class was created largely by the efforts of those in the labor movement during the first half of the 20th Century.
Indeed, in a time when the working class seems to fall further and further behind whilst banks get bailed out and Wall Streeters pay themselves perverse bonuses, at least the working class still gets one special day to call its own. The other 364 days on the calendar may be owned by someone else — by the banks, big corporations, the superrich — but this is the day to celebrate the working man and woman.
Sadly, these are tough times for the labor movement. Very tough times. Union membership has plunged to record lows. Many unions in both the public and private sector have been asked to make major concessions. And, public hostlity towards unions has reached an all-time high.
Actually, it much worse than that. Stagnant wages, lack of job security, exploding health-care costs, upside down mortgages, and declining expectations for the future make labor’s future prospects bleak. Then, there’s that favorite chestnut of the political right called “free trade,” which was supposed to spigit in a rising tide that would lift everyone’s boat, but which instead turned all of us into pushers of shopping carts full of Chinese-made products.
Despite all the challenges and hardships to America’s working class from its obvious adversaries, the greatest obstacle to maintaining a healthy economic and social balance of wealth and power may come from a segment of society that you’d least expect to be questioned from the Left.
I’m speaking about the labor movement and labor unions themselves.
Indeed, labor unions have become their own worst enemies.
Let me explain why.
Unions are killing themselves. They are commiting economic suicide.
And the worst of worst are public-sector trade unions. The policemen, the firefighters, and the teachers.
Attacking these pillars of society has largely been taboo. For decades, these groups have been virtually untouchable. Until recently, no elected official dared to challenge the immense power of those who fight crime, extinguish fires, and teach our children. To attack anyone who worked in these noble professions was considered downright un-American.
And so for decades these groups got what they wanted. They received generous pay raises ahead of the rate of inflation. They enjoyed unheard of health benefits for their entire families. And most costly of all to taxpayers, exorbitant pension plans turned a public sector jobs into the equivalent of a lifetime annuity.
Now in many parts of the country, we’re broke. Many governments struggle to make a payroll. They can no longer afford to pay the policemen, the firefighters, and the teachers that are actively working because so many pensioners are draining the system. One California lawmaker said is best a few months ago. “Given our buget, we can probably afford to pay one group of government employees. But under the current system, we now have to pay three — the third who are actually working and the two-thirds who have taken retirement and who are earning up to 90 percent of their old salaries. Something must be done. It’s critical.”
Think about that. For every dollar that gets paid out to an active public sector employee, nearly twice as many dollars are being funneled to retirees who bascially sit around and do nothing. That’s not to diminish the contributions of all those who put in their time while they were working. But someone has to stand up and say the free lunch is over.
Some brave political leaders (mostly conservatives, I shamefully admit) have done just that. And, they’ve gotten into dogfights — most notably in Wisconsin, New Jersey, and now California. Even here in Las Vegas, the local teachers union was asked to make concessions. When they steadfastly refused to budge, the school district had no choice other than to lay-off hundreds of less senior employees. So now, classroom sizes (in what’s already one of the worst districts in the nation) are exploding and the quality of education declines further. Society suffers.
Think about that. OUR SOCIETY SUFFERS. Not just in terms of strained police and fire protection as well as overburdened teachers, but in virtually all sectors of government which are now facing cutbacks — national parks, health and safety inspectors, road and bridge construction. You name it. Please explain to me why millions of retired postal workers should be getting what amounts to an average salary for the rest of working America? All budgets have been crippled by unsustainable employee pension plans siphoning off what could be the difference between getting a pothole fixed or not, or a policeman to your house in 5 minutes instead of 8, because there aren’t enough patrol cars on the street.
Sadly, one could write a very long list of the excesses and inflexibility of public sector trade unions, despite the obvious downturn in the American economy and tough times for everyone else not privileged to enjoy such representation. In this climate, their demands are lecherous. They are killing our cities and bankrupting our local treasuries.
No doubt, most people support a strong labor movement. We want all workers to be compensated fairly. And skilled labor — such as policemen, firefighters, and teachers deserve — to be paid better than they are getting. But they are not entitled to a big fat paycheck all the way to the grave.
This must stop.
Juxtaposed against the grotesque and unpunished crimes of Wall Street and the unchecked power and influence of corporations, the excesses of the labor movement may seem an unfair target — especially by someone from the Left. Perhaps so. No doubt, the outrage of the working class has many deserving targets other than our bretheren who work 9 to 5 jobs.
But before we launch after the moguls who are making a killing at the expense of the middle class, we should first strive to get our own house in order. We must do what is right for our communities and stay within our budget, painful as though that may be. We must all sacrifice. Some things must be prioritized over others. We can no longer afford to do it all and pay everyone what they want. It’s time to make some tough choices.
Indeed, safety and education must be the priorities of our government. Ensuring that millions of retirees enjoy a fat enough pension to play golf every day should not.