Labor Day: A Celebration that Needs Work

By Benita M. Dodd

It’s become a holiday for great sales, the last trip to the lake, the last neighborhood pool weekend and a few parades. It’s the unofficial end of summer. The history of Labor Day, marked since 1884 on the first Monday of September, is increasingly foggy. Tragically, even the forces that originated the celebration of workers’ rights seem to have forgotten the “reason for the season.”

In “The History of Labor Day,” the U.S. Department of Labor describes the holiday as “a creation of the labor movement … dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

“The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy,” the department adds. “It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom and leadership — the American worker.”

More than 100 years after the first Labor Day celebration on Sept. 5, 1882, the labor movement that once championed the rights of the American worker is working just as hard to erode those hard-won gains. And unions’ euphemistically named efforts provide the evidence: the “project labor agreement” and the Employee Free Choice Act.

Across the nation, 13.8 percent of employees are union members. In the construction industry 15.6 percent of workers are unionized. At 3.7 percent, Georgia’s unionized work force of 151,000 is the second lowest in the nation. And according to the Union Membership and Coverage Database, available at http://www.unionstats.com/, in 2008 just 5.6 percent of Georgia’s private construction workforce belonged to a trade union.

Those 14,700 union construction workers have the upper hand over 260,000 others – the more than nine out of 10 construction employees in Georgia not unionized – when it comes to federal “large-scale construction projects,” those costing the government at least $25 million.  President Obama issued an executive order in February saying it is “the policy of the Federal Government to encourage executive agencies to consider requiring the use of project labor agreements in connection with large-scale construction projects in order to promote economy and efficiency in federal procurement.” A project labor agreement is a “pre-hire collective bargaining agreement.”

The president also ordered the Office of Management and Budget to consult with the Labor Secretary on expanding that policy: Make “recommendations about whether the broader use of project labor agreements, with respect to both construction projects undertaken under federal contracts and construction projects receiving federal financial assistance, would help to promote the economical, efficient and timely completion of such projects.”

Whether government intervention has ever encouraged “economical, efficient and timely completion” of anything is questionable. What’s certain is government policies giving preference to union participation in projects will hike the cost and hinder competition in the private sector. The policy could force companies to engage unions, even in union-challenged states like Georgia, and hinder the ability of companies to reward or remove individuals on a job depending on their performance.

The second challenge to workers’ advancement is the so-called Employee Free Choice Act, also known as Card Check, which would facilitate union organizing, especially among smaller companies. It’s on the back burner in Congress pending action on health care, but sure to return to the forefront.

The legislation aims to end workers’ rights to a secret ballot in deciding whether to unionize. Employees would have to publicly declare their preference on whether to unionize by allowing union organizers to bypass elections if a simple majority of employees sign authorization cards approving a union. The potential for intimidation is rife; the cost of unionization could be prohibitive to smaller and mid-size companies and increase the cost of doing business in states such as Georgia. It also would force employers and employees into a binding two-year contract where they must accept a federal bureaucrat’s definition of a fair contract.

Founding Father Thomas Jefferson sagely said: “I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.” This Labor Day, don’t labor under the illusion that government is taking care of you. It never works.


Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (September 4, 2009). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.

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