Archived Opinion

After 125 years, we can do better

After 125 years, we can do better

Bob Savelson • Guest columnist

Thinking about Labor Day, it has been a national holiday since 1894. Consistent with the nation’s ambivalent feelings about whether organized labor should truly be part of its social fabric, the statute was signed by President Grover Cleveland — who earlier that year had dispatched federal troops to break a strike called to support Pullman car employees protesting wage cuts. 

Today, we often hear that our labor history is a relic of a bygone age. Regularly, we hear that having disposed of truly terrible 19th-century working conditions and oppression, and with a national “safety net” of remedial laws, our problems have been solved and employee representation is an obsolete idea. When attention is turned to addressing today’s issues — including job safety, pension protection, healthcare, pay equity and family leave — there is little interest in fixing glaring inequities.

Is there any good reason why we should not be considering new ideas to address these and other issues through employee representation geared to today’s work environment? Do we really want to ignore them because the Congress seems incapable of doing so? Can we shed the real relics of 19th-century economic thinking and find ways to promote employee representation, productivity, partnership, humane working environments and family values in today’s society?   

In 1993-1994, the U.S. Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations took a comprehensive look at how we might address many of these issues. It solicited advice and listened to a broad array of American leaders. Its reports and policy recommendations called for new ways of thinking about the workplace. Most of this vision, however, has gone nowhere — 25 years later, not much has changed except for the increased stress borne by the average American worker and family.

It is time for us to start addressing these concerns. Respected CEOs are calling for review of significant corporate policies that affect all stakeholders in our society. There is a necessity to reconcile our desire for a family-friendly society with what is going on at work. There is an ongoing need to change how we think about the real benefit to employees, managers, shareholders and consumers of worker-management partnerships. We should keep in mind that partnership arrangements, though few and far between, do exist as a building block. 

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There is a companion need to update our basic labor laws — those who question this might feel differently after working a few days in a food processing plant or coal mine. 

If Labor Day now has significance beyond marking the end of summer, it is as a reminder that there is serious work to be done. Successors to the men and women who stood up many years ago for decent wages and working conditions and our corporate leaders should be engaged in a national discussion of how we can succeed. Our political and civic leaders should be sponsoring this dialogue. Labor Day came about reluctantly because the nation didn’t handle these problems well — we can do better 125 years later.

Bob Savelson, who resides in Cashiers and Washington, D.C., was a practicing labor lawyer for over 50 years. He is a Fellow of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers and member of the Advisory Council of the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

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