Unions, middle class are fading fast
Published in the September 23, 2016 Santa Maria Times.
On Sept. 2, for the third consecutive year, unions of the Santa Maria Valley, working in conjunction with the Tri-Counties Central Labor Council, hosted the Santa Maria Valley Union Picnic and Celebration to commemorate labor and Labor Day.
As in the past, the event was held in Pioneer Park and attendees were treated to free food — the traditional Labor Day fare of hamburgers and potato salad — as well as face painting, bounce houses for the kids, and speeches by candidates running for local offices.
Speakers included outgoing Congresswoman Lois Capps, as well as Salud Carbajal, who is running to be her successor. Candidates for the Allan Hancock College Board of Trustees Jeff Hall and Dan Hilker also spoke, as did Joan Hartmann, a candidate for supervisor in Santa Barbara County’s 3rd District. Other speakers included Santa Maria City Council candidates Terri Zuniga and Hector Sanchez, and Dawn Ortiz Legg, running for state Assembly, 35th District.
The speakers focused on topics as diverse as clean energy, jobs, the environment and the need to protect it from polluters. Hancock College board candidates Hall and Hilker spoke on the importance of education and the vital role community colleges play in the higher-educational system. Both vowed to be advocates for students and teachers. All the speakers noted the importance of organized labor and unions.
“My dad was a miner in Arizona when I was growing up,” said Salud Carbajal. “He was paid good wages and we had health insurance. Why? Because he belonged to a union.”
As many of the speakers noted, Labor Day has a long and noble history as well as being an important end-of-the-summer American holiday going back well over 100 years. Matthew Maguire, a machinist by trade, is thought to have been the first to propose a “workingman’s holiday” in 1882, similar to the traditional European May Day. To avoid confusion, the first Monday in September was designated Labor Day in the U.S.
Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894, with legislation signed by President Grover Cleveland. Thirty states were already celebrating Labor Day by then.
The impetus for having a Labor Day holiday came from organized labor — American unions, in other words, in the late 19th century when the union movement was just getting started. In the years that followed, unions fought for the eight-hour workday, the 40-hour workweek, overtime pay, weekends, pensions, health insurance, pensions, job security and safety standards.
But due to the fact unions have been in decline since the 1970s, much of organized labor’s contributions have been forgotten.
Union membership peaked at 35 percent of the workforce all the way back in 1954. Unions remained strong through the 1970s, and it was no coincidence that was a period when the American middle class enjoyed its greatest prosperity. The decline of unions and the decline of the middle class are inextricably linked.
In 1968, for example, a family of two could live on minimum wage. The economy grew at 5 percent. Unions were strong enough that pundits spoke of “big business” and “big labor” in the same breath, as if the two were more or less equal in power.
Those days are long gone, however, and nationally, big business outspends labor 15-1 in political campaigns. One of the major goals in events such as the Union Picnic is to remind people of the importance and the need for unions — if the middle class is ever going to flourish again.
Mark James Miller, President, Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College, CFT Local 6185, Santa Maria, CA