Union representatives call for reflection on Labor Day

Monday, September 3, 2012 | 5:30 p.m. CDT; updated 10:49 p.m. CDT, Monday, September 3, 2012

COLUMBIA — Mark Fleetwood didn't have any special plans for celebrating Labor Day, but he said that didn't take anything away from the meaning of the holiday.

"It’s a celebration of what the laborers of America have created," said Fleetwood, who is president of the 903 Chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees. "Everything you see when you walk down the street has been created by the labor workforce. Without it we wouldn't have sidewalks to walk on, streets to drive on or hospitals to work in."

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"We keep the wheels of the country turning," he said. 

The federation, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, or AFL-CIO, is the largest union representing federal employees. Its local headquarters is in Truman Veterans Hospital, where Fleetwood has worked for almost 30 years.

Around Columbia, a handful of people who talked about Labor Day had a lighter impression of the holiday.

“I think it’s supposed to be a day to give back to people who work really hard,” Cynthia Diaz said while playing in the water fountains at Stephens Lake Park with her 3-year-old daughter and 3-year-old and 10-year-old nephews.

Scott Penman was at the park fountains with his wife, parents and child. “I think it’s a day well-earned off,” he said.

At Cosmo-Bethel Park, Robert Jones and his wife, Misty Jones, were running over football plays with their five children.

“I think it’s a day that separates summer and fall,” Robert Jones said of Labor Day.

"It's the official day of the fall," Misty Jones added. "From here on out, it's all business."

Labor Day was first celebrated on Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City by the local Central Labor Union. It was created as a holiday to celebrate the “workingman,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

President Grover Cleveland declared Labor Day an official holiday in 1894 after the great Pullman Strike. Factory workers with the Pullman Palace Car Co. walked out after wage negotiations fell through. The strike crippled railroads across the nation until a government injunction, which eventually paved the way for unions and thus, Labor Day.

Nearly 120 years later, millions of Americans are represented by organized labor, but the numbers are trending downward. The AFL-CIO is the largest federation of unions, according to its official website, with more than 55 national and international unions. In 2008, it represented more than 11 million workers; that number had fallen to 8.5 million by 2010.

The Change to Win Federation, which formed in 2005 as an alternative to the AFL-CIO, represented almost 5 million workers in 2008, according to its website.

In 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 9.9 percent of Missouri wage and salary workers were union members; that number was 11.9 percent nationally. Five years earlier, the numbers were 11.5 percent and 12.5 percent, respectively. The inability to strike keeps unions weak in Missouri compared to other states, union representatives told the Missourian in a 2011 report.

Although union membership both nationally and in Missouri is on the decline, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Fleetwood said Americans should better recognize laborers.

“A lot of people don’t take time to think about it,” he said. “The labor force is under attack right now. The cards are stacked against labor right now in Washington, D.C. The almighty dollar, unfortunately, holds too great an influence over the legislative process."

Chris Reed, president of the local chapter of National Association of Letter Carriers, which is also part of the AFL-CIO, echoed Fleetwood. He said labor unions “built the American middle class, which feeds everyone else.”

The outlook for laborers, however, continues to be uncertain, Reed said.

“Jobs are in danger these days," Reed said. "Public employees are under attack. Nothing out there feels safe anymore.”

Reed chose to work for the U.S. Postal Service instead of taking a job in the business sector because he felt it would be more secure.

"I knew this job could provide me with security, benefits," he said. "The post office had never laid anyone off."

Almost 30 years later, he doesn’t regret his choice, but he worries about unemployment and the middle class in general. Although unemployment is down from this time last year, it remains high. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the unadjusted unemployment rate in July was 8.3 percent, while in Missouri it was 7.2 percent.

“The middle class is getting beaten up,” Reed said. “There is no fix for it. We are especially mindful of what Congress, especially Republicans, is doing."

Regina Guevara, field representative for the Laborers Public Service Employees Local 773, said Labor Day is a "celebration of all efforts unions paved the road for and then going forward." Guevara said members of her union planned to walk in a Labor Day parade in Jefferson City.

Guevara said she worries not only about political influence against organized labor but also about the complacency of union members.

"We don't remember what unions paved the way for," Guevara said. "We take the benefits, the 40-hour work week, all of it for granted."

Guevara lamented the lack of knowledge among 18- to 29-year-olds about unions and their contributions to the workforce.

"Without unions, they wouldn't know what work is," she said, adding that the history of labor and labor unions should be emphasized in schools.

She hopes the holiday will inspire people to make others aware of the importance of unions.

"We need to be afraid we're going backwards," she said, referring to recent events involving public workers and collective bargaining in Wisconsin and Ohio. "We have to salvage what's left."

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker faced but won a recall election this summer amid controversy surrounding his stance against collective bargaining for unions representing government workers. Although Walker prevailed, some of the limits on collective bargaining passed by the Wisconsin legislature eventually were struck down.

A similar law pushed by Republican lawmakers also was struck down in Ohio in November 2011. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership in Wisconsin and Ohio was 13.3 percent and 13.4 percent, respectively, in 2011. Those numbers are also on the decline.

More than five years ago, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in favor of unions when it declared in a landmark case that public employees have a constitutional right to engage in collective bargaining with their government employers.

Missourian reporter Gaby Ramirez contributed to this article.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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Mark Flakne September 4, 2012 | 3:12 p.m.

"The inability to strike keeps unions weak in Missouri compared to other states, union representatives told the Missourian in a 2011 report."

Is it true that Missouri law forbids any employee from striking? I know that public employee unions are forbidden from striking. The article at the link provided talks about public employees, but not private employees.

This article reads as if no Missouri employee is allowed to strike.

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