Keller @ Large: Hard Times For Labor Unions

BOSTON (CBS) – The Labor Day holiday is always a welcome break for workers of all kinds, but never more so than this year.

It’s been a tough year, for a lot of reasons, including the weather, so an extra day off with fine summer weather still around is something to be savored.

Listen to Jon’s commentary:

But while most us will enjoy the day off, for those with specific ties to organized labor, it’s got to be a moment for reflection as well as barbecue.

The first Labor Day in 1882 was created by unions, and since then, it’s been a day for organized labor to celebrate their huge impact on establishing and protecting fair treatment for their members.

But these are hard times for the union movement.

The percent of all workers belonging to unions has been slipping for years, down to less than 7 percent of private-sector workers last year.

By contrast, the public sector is more than 36 percent unionized, with local government employees holding the highest union membership rate of all, more than 42 percent.

And that disparity is at the core of labor’s current headache.

As the economic downtown has crippled public-sector budgets, public-sector unions have been victimized by their own success.

The contracts they won over the years – in many cases, providing better benefits than you see in the private sector – are suddenly unsustainable, and beleaguered taxpayers are mostly not inclined to make up the difference with higher taxes.

And while public-sector payrolls are starting to shrink, they’ve been among the last group of workers to feel the sting of hard times, getting bailed out by the federal stimulus, for instance, while the private-sector had to settle for scraps.

Organized labor rhetoric has always been class-based, that the haves should do right by the have-nots whether they want to or not, and that rhetoric of us vs. them has always had strong appeal.

But lately, while I doubt most private-sector workers love corporate elites any more than they ever did, public-sector labor is now part of the “them” in us vs. them.

Even here in Massachusetts, labor-friendly Democrats have found themselves in unprecedented political confrontations with labor.

And there’s no end in sight.

So enjoy your Labor Day, you’ve earned it.

But if you’re in a public-sector union, beware of what’s to come if things don’t pick up.

You can listen to Keller At Large on WBZ News Radio every weekday at 7:55 a.m. and 12:25 p.m. You can also watch Jon on WBZ-TV News.

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