There’s only one thing missing from Labor Day this year.
It seems a trifle ironic to take a day off from work to celebrate working people when so many are taking every day off because they can’t find any work. Then again, it’d be hard to bring the jollity to an Unemployment Day parade.
Last year, I jested about the fact that people going to Tannehill State Park for the annual Labor Day fest would be more likely to see a Moon Pie than a union parade, and I received quite the tart rejoinder from gentlemen of the brotherhood, pointing out in no uncertain terms that union families represented quite prominently there and suggesting that I might oughta come see for myself.
The point I was trying to make then was that our local friends from the locals might be hiding their light under a union-approved bushel, since there was no publicity to be found about their yearly whoopdedoo; no websites, no posters, no late-night infomercials. Compare and contrast with, say, Tuscaloosa, where the annual parade rolls proudly downtown with antique cars and a Celtic marching band, or Mobile, where revelers toss paper products from Kimberly-Clark, presumably a union shop, to the spectators.
I don’t know why I’m insistent that there be a parade. Well, yes, I do. They’re fun to watch, true, but, from its inception, Labor Day was built around parading, specifically to demonstrate “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations,” as New York’s Central Labor Council outlined the celebration in 1882.
It’s easy to ignore, now that we no longer have smokestacks belching within the city limits, but we owe a great deal to the laborers who came before us. The perks we take for granted in our workplaces—eight-hour days, the forty-hour week, the weekend itself; worker’s comp, overtime pay, a minimum wage—might not be ours today had our great-grands not put their lives on the line to secure better working conditions.
Those conditions were hard won, because the interests that controlled production in that manufacturing age were loathe to lessen their profits. As membership in unions increased after the Civil War, so did the instances of violence directed at those workers intemperate enough to strike for higher wages. Alabama workers often faced the business end of firearms when they tried to improve their lives, memorably during coal strikes in 1908 and steel strikes in 1920, but unforgettably in 1934, when company goons opened up on striking miners with machine guns and the governor was obliged to send the National Guard into Birmingham to calm matters down
Those wishing to discredit the union movement sometimes cite its involvement with Marxists and anarchists, but the redistribution of wealth Alabama workers were most interested in was a decent paycheck. It was a desire that crossed the color line, and for a brief time in early Birmingham, black and white miners found common cause in job-related actions to pry loose bucks from the grip of the profiteers who employed them.
After the company men realized they could divide and conquer by exploiting traditional racial prejudices, Jim Crow was back in business.
Unity is the byproduct of union, and management fears unity, for when workers get together and are willing to act together for common purpose, they can negotiate significant concessions. In a right-to-work state such as Alabama, though, union organizers encounter resistance on a regular basis, because management has worked diligently to convince the work force that unions jeopardize job security.
Hey, unions aren’t the ones outsourcing.
The Encyclopedia of Alabama estimates that fifty years ago, manufacturing accounted for 30% of all jobs in Birmingham, but now that number’s around 6%. Union membership statewide has suffered a similar drop. For every high-profile plant lured to the state by the promise of cheap labor, how many jobs have been lost in small Alabama firms closed by out-of-state management for reasons of cost-cutting? How many of those lost jobs will ever return?
Were these different times, with statesmen at the helm instead of mere politicians, it might be possible to pull these United States out of this economic quagmire by putting people to work repairing the nation. With money at absurdly low interest rates, who better than Uncle Sam to borrow lots of it to hire his nieces and nephews to shore up our untended infrastructure? Public works projects could put thousands of people to work, back on payrolls, back into the consumer economy, at the same time revitalizing the cities, towns and countrysides.
However, that won’t happen, not as long as an obstructionist party in power in Washington insists on protecting the wealth of the few at the expense of the many.
It would be terrific if economic renewal could break out in the private sector, but just the other day I eavesdropped on a conversation wherein a local banker told a client he hadn’t made a small business loan all year because his superiors had told him not to.
Judging from the tenuous condition of small businesses hereabouts, it’s a ruinous policy shared by many financial institutions content merely to sit on their cash reserves while they ride out the financial storm.
On second thought, maybe a marching band for this Labor Day’s a bit much. Perhaps we’ll just observe the occasion with a chorus of Blind Alfred Reed singing, “How can a poor man stand such times and live?”
Once again this year, our area Labor Day festivity seems to be operating under a strict need-to-know basis, given the dearth of advance buzz, so I offer the bully pulpit of Birmingham Weekly as a platform for proclaiming the glad news: the Central Alabama Labor Council, in conjunction with the United Mineworkers of America, will be in full effect Monday at the aforementioned Tannehill State Park, noon till five.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com.