Labor's day of decision Unions must find a way to protect their members while also keeping their employers financially healthy.

Posted: September 07, 2009

Enjoy this Labor Day, whether attending a backyard barbecue, visiting the Shore one last time, or joining the local parade and family festival sponsored by the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO.

That last tradition dates to the nation's first unofficial Labor Day in 1882. Ten thousand workers marched in New York City, joining their families at a city park for a picnic, concert, and speeches.

Then, as now, it wasn't just a celebration. There were serious questions about the direction of the labor movement and its role in society. So this is a day for reflection, not an excuse to party like it's 1949 - the days when union members were more than 30 percent of the workforce.

Earlier this year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that union members made up 12.4 percent of workers. That's a slight increase from the year before, but much lower than 1983's 20.1 percent. Now, break that 12.4 percent down. And the news gets worse.

In the private sector, the rate of unionization was 7.6 percent, while the public sector was almost five times that, 36.8 percent.

On the private side, these should be days of optimism. There is a pro-union president in the White House. There are Democratic majorities in Congress - all thanks to union backing. Yet labor's top priority, the Employee Free Choice Act, designed to help ease the unionization process in workplaces, is bogged down. Lawmakers just don't see the huge public support for labor that it benefited from in the past.

Gallup poll numbers released Thursday show that the approval rate for labor unions is at 48 percent. It's the first time since Gallup first asked the question in the late 1930s that the number is below 50 percent. Forty-six percent say unions "mostly hurt" companies vs. 45 percent who say "mostly help." On labor's effect on the overall economy, 51 percent say "mostly hurt"; 39 percent say "mostly help."

Those kinds of numbers in a recession don't help pro-union efforts. So when public-sector unions try to avoid layoffs with proposals that may raise taxes, the public isn't buying. People are trying to make ends meet.

And add to the mix the fact that current budget woes at all levels of government have exacerbated issues over unsustainable pensions and other benefits that states and cities such as Philadelphia have granted to unionized workers.

Mayor Nutter is rightly seeking to get health-care costs under control by ending Philadelphia's tradition of handing over money to the four municipal unions without knowing the real cost of benefits. At the same time, he's hoping to push the city's $700 million relief package through the legislature. But that measure is in jeopardy as city unions fight language added by a state Senate hoping to address the long-term fiscal problems posed by unaffordable pension plans.

Difficult days indeed. And right now, too many see unions more as part of the problem than as able to offer real solutions for the greater good.

So mark the day; enjoy the time spent with family and friends. And then get back to work. Figure out how today's labor movement can not only protect workers, but also help maintain financially sound workplaces, in the public and private sectors.

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