by Wade Rathke
Labor day, 2020
Pearl River Even here along the Gulf Coast and Mississippi River, the temperature has edged down a couple of degrees, signaling Labor Day’s arrival. In my time this meant school was starting and no matter what the thermometer read, it was fall, doggone it, and time to pull out the long-sleeved shirts and get ready to hump it for another year.
Labor Day now means union-time for me, not school days. At the Regional Transit Authority where we represent workers along with the Amalgamated Transit Union and the electricians, they are grilling hot dogs and hamburgers under the breezeway at the A. Philip Randolph RTA building. Maybe the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO will try to have its picnic in City Park, a tradition we restarted when I was Secretary-Treasurer of that body, but given social distancing and Covid-19, maybe not? Riding bikes in the evenings along the Mississippi Sound between Waveland and Bay St. Louis over the weekend, we saw lots of picnics, but no union banners.
For unions, these are contradictory times. According to the new Gallup poll, we’re feeling the love with 65% public support, the highest in seventeen years. Their poll shows that,
Democrats’ current 83% approval of labor unions is the highest on record since then. At the same time, 45% of Republicans and 64% of independents approve of unions. In 2009, 66% of Democrats, 29% of Republicans and 44% of independents viewed labor unions favorably. Since the Great Recession, union approval has recovered among all three major party groups.
With huge unemployment underlining the fact that job security means almost nothing whether you are table server, an airline attendant, or a school worker, more workers are at least wishing that they had a union, and that’s good news.
On the other hand, 30 million on unemployment benefits with a lot of those union members as well, means unions are facing cutbacks in many cases as dues income drops. Workers could be ringing the phones at union halls and find more answering machines and less follow-up on organizing plans. Unionized janitors, casino workers, and a pile of manufacturing workers have found themselves on the unemployment line. Salaried, professional, and office-based workers have largely been able to return to work, even if remotely, but service, industrial, and other workers remain on the bench as the economy still struggles with the pandemic and reopening.
We’re hardly in shape to muster the resources for great drives, even if workers were clamoring for help. For all his faults, there are also no John Lewis-types out there ready to rally either the institutional unions or the unorganized to wave our flags.
Certainly, there are opportunities. Teachers are standing up over health-and-safety concerns, but given the way the administration and OSHA have walked away from the issue, the same need – and demand – for collective action exists in all workplaces. Joining with the unemployed, many of them union members, to demand more benefits and security, and leading the way is another obvious path we could pave.
It’s unclear if hunkering down and hoping for the best is a winning strategy. Certainly, it hasn’t proven to be over recent decades, so it’s unclear how well it will work in the current crisis we face now.
The good news is that people love us again. The bad news is we may be in no position to return that love.