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Scott MacKay Commentary: Better Times for Organized Labor on Labor Day 2015

For workers and unions, there hasn’t been much to celebrate on Labor Day in recent years. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says things may finally...

For  workers and unions, there hasn’t been much to celebrate on Labor Day in recent years. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says things may finally be looking up.

Today we honor organized labor, the folks who gave us the 40-hour week, overtime pay and  health benefits. Not to mention the middle-class that long made America an exceptional, stable and prosperous nation.

We are a long way from the days, a century ago, when 10,000 gathered in Providence to watch as a Labor Day parade marched through downtown and jammed the city piers off Dyer Street to take a steamboat to Warwick’s Rocky Point, where the festivities continued with a giant clambake.

Up until the 1970s and 1980s, Rhode Island’s economy bustled with thousands of union manufacturing jobs. Workers and their families could afford to buy cars and houses, send their kids to college. Many even had pensions that secured their retirement.

Then came the massive shift of manufacturing jobs to the American south and the Third World. Add on the Great Recession and the result has been historic income inequality, wage stagnation and a battered working class. Worker productivity keeps rising but wages are not.

The Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank, estimates that three percent of American households own half the wealth. One family, the Waltons, who own Walmart, has a combined wealth greater than the combined wealth of the bottom 42 percent of the entire population, says Robert Reich, the former U.S. Labor Secretary.

Rhode Island still has one of the top rates in the nation for public sector unionization. Yet, these labor organizations no longer have the clout they once brandished. Teachers unions once ruled the Statehouse as a barony. They still provide members with good wages and benefits. Yet their political agenda has stalled on issues like the 2011 state pension overhaul,  binding arbitration and the growth  of charter schools.

Private sector unions have been battered; their percentage of the workforce dropping to under 10 percent nationwide. Weak labor laws and lackluster enforcement by the federal government over the past few decades has been a big factor in wage stagnation, says Richard McIntyre, chairman of the University of Rhode Island economics department.

The only law more widely scoffed at than labor law is "speeding on Route 95," says McIntyre. As recently as the 1970s, he says, the threat of a union at a business would often lead management to raise wages, even if only to thwart a union organizing campaign. That’s history, says McIntyre, a labor economist.

Yet, there are signs of light at the end of this tunnel, says George Nee, president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO. "I’m a little bit more optimistic of late," says Nee.

He points to pro-union factors locally and nationally. Rhode Island’s recently unionized child-care workers have received raises, vacation and professional training benefits. Five hundred new union workers have been signed up at the Twin River Casino. Adjunct professors at the Community College of Rhode Island are in negotiations for a first contract. The Teamsters are in negotiations for a first contract at Daniele Foods in Burrillville. And the nurses’ union recently organized workers at Fatima Hospital.

Unions were persuasive in pushing the General Assembly to raise the minimum wage. The state unemployment rate is down. Big construction projects that will employ building trades union workers are in the works, including the new nursing school in Providence’s Jewelry District, the new engineering center at URI and a power plant slated for Burrillville.

The reality of rampant inequality is sinking in with the public, says Nee. An example: The recent Gallup Poll showing that support for unions continues to recover. This survey showed that nearly six in 10 now approve of unions, up from 48 percent in 2009. "I think people now realize who is in a position to fight back against inequality – the labor movement." (This poll of 1,011 adults aged 18 or over carried an error margin of 4 percent).

Union leaders are also cheered by initiatives championed by President Obama, including making it easier for low-paid fast-food workers to unionize, making millions more workers eligible for overtime pay and ensuring that employers don’t evade workplace protections by labeling workers 'independent contractors.'

Labor Day is also the unofficial last day of summer. It is a harbinger of autumn and, of course, football season. In these parts that means a return of the beloved Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots.

Patriot Nation cheered when a federal judge tossed out the four-game suspension he was given for his role in Deflategate.  Today is a good day to ponder the question of why Brady was able to challenge an arbitrary and unfair punishment from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

The answer, of course, is that he belongs to a union and works under a collective bargaining agreement, the very contract  the judge cited in overturning the suspension.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 AM and 8:40 AM and at 5:44 PM on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and commentary at our On Politics blog at