OK, it's time to celebrate Labor Day, time to celebrate the labor movement that won a wide range of benefits for working people. That includes, of course, a paid day off on Labor Day and other holidays or extra pay for working on the holidays. But there's much more than that. Much more.
We can also thank unions for:
• The eight-hour workday with meal and rest breaks.
• Forty-hour work weeks and three-day holiday weekends.
• Overtime pay and paid vacations, sick leave and maternity leave.
• Major help in the enactment of anti-child labor law laws and increased public education funding.
• Medicare and retirement and disability benefits.
• Job security and other workers' rights.
• A strong political voice for unions that helped enact Social Security, unemployment insurance, workers compensation, health and safety and minimum wage laws and has helped elect pro-worker office holders.
• Important help in the passage of key civil rights and civil liberties laws that have particularly helped political dissidents, women and minorities and military veterans.
Certainly not every worker enjoys all the union-backed benefits. But even the non-union workers who make up the vast majority of working people these days have many of the benefits. And, thanks to the efforts of unions, they have the opportunity to win all of the benefits.
You can be sure that on this Labor Day, as on all others, political candidates will have lots to say about unions. You can expect, however, that not much will be heard from Republicans. Their usual ranting in behalf of their moneyed backers about the evils of "Big Labor" and "union bosses" will be muted, lest they offend potential blue-collar supporters. Democrats undoubtedly will voice their usual support for union members and workers generally, many sincerely, some simply in hopes of gaining blue-collar support.
Union opponents seem to forget that unions are democratic organizations, whose members generally have a strong voice in their unions' activities. Union officers are elected, after all, and so are answerable to their members.
Union positions on political candidates and issues, as well as financial contributions to candidates, are not dictated by union officers, despite what anti-union politicians assert. Union positions and union political spending are determined by the votes of union members, usually on the recommendations of their Committees on Political Education (COPE). Officers who don't reflect their members' position face replacement by membership vote.
Once, Labor Day meant big parades in cities nationwide. But no more. Although union numbers continue shrinking, unions are surely here to stay. They've fought their way into the Establishment. They still parade here and there, but no longer feel that parading is necessary to show their strength and importance.
Unions are much more likely to mark Labor Day with the political activity that has become as important to them as economic activity since their arrival into the ranks of the economically accepted.
Thus the Labor Day messages of union leaders will stress politics. That will largely include support for President Obama, despite union complaints that he has not worked hard enough to overcome congressional opposition to pro-labor reforms that he's proposed or supported. From labor's point-of-view, Obama is nevertheless very much preferable to Mitt Romney, just as most other Democrats are preferable to their Republican opponents.
Despite much opinion to the contrary, the union stress on politics, rather on winning broader public support for unionization, does not mean that all unions have reached a permanent, unshakeable position in society.
Nor does it mean that unions are not still fighting battles that are as almost as significant as those of the 1930s and 1940s that drew broad support from a public which sometimes frowns on unions, now that they have secured the strong position in society which the public helped them win.
Labor influence is not measured strictly by the number of union members, because of labor's strong influence in politics and because the wages and conditions of unionized workers set the standard for all workers. Yet numbers are important, and unions generally have been struggling just to keep overall membership steady.
Currently, only about 12 percent of privately employed workers are unionized. But while their numbers have remained low, the figure for unionized public employees has grown to nearly 40 percent. That has put public employee unions in the vanguard of the labor movement, and given the movement new, badly needed strength, although also raising strong political opposition to public employee unions.
There are some fairly solid reasons for the decline in union membership overall, ironically including the unions' loss of their position as underdogs, the widespread granting of union conditions to non-union workers and illegal employer interference in voting by workers on whether to unionize.
Perhaps the most important reason for the decline in union membership has been a fundamental change in the workforce. Once dominated by blue-collar production workers, it has come to be dominated by white-collar service workers. But organized labor sometimes has been slow to move into white-collar fields outside of public employment.
Labor Day should cause us to reflect on the great importance of the labor movement's vital mission – its organizing of workers to win economic and political strength and helping elect pro-worker officeholders, its help in creating jobs and otherwise aiding the millions of Americans who remain unemployed or otherwise in economic distress.
So while you may not be able to see a parade on Labor Day, labor is still doing many other things well worth watching, and well worth supporting.
Happy Labor Day!
Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based columnist who has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com